Manchester pronounces husband and wife innocent of misconduct

Institution rejects 'malicious' allegations, but accuser is puzzled. Paul Jump reports

July 7, 2011

The University of Manchester has cleared two of its senior academics of research misconduct and expressed concerns about a series of "unfounded and malicious" allegations that have recently been made against them.

Married couple Ralf Paus and Silvia Bulfone-Paus both spend 20 per cent of their time at Manchester, where they are, respectively, professor of cutaneous medicine and professor of immunobiology. They spend the remainder in Germany, where both hold professorships at the University of Lubeck.

Professor Bulfone-Paus is also chair of the department of immunology and cell biology at the Leibniz Society's Research Centre Borstel.

Concerns were raised in May about apparent data duplication in six papers, published between 1997 and 2003, of which Professor Paus was corresponding or senior author.

Professor Bulfone-Paus was also an author on five of the papers, which used mice to study the genetic mechanisms involved in the development and maintenance of hair follicles.

But a Manchester spokesman said that a panel of "screeners" established by the university to consider the allegations concluded that there was no need to open a formal investigation because "there was insufficient substance to the allegations or, in some cases, they were adequately explained by professors Paus and Bulfone-Paus".

The spokesman confirmed that there were no live investigations into either academic at Manchester.

Professor Paus told Times Higher Education that he had explained to the panel that the duplication was because the RNA (ribonucleic acid) samples under scrutiny had been taken from the same bank.

He said that the panel had also concluded that the allegations were part of "a whole series" of complaints that had lately been made against him and which it considered to be "unfounded and malicious".

The allegations came to light in the wake of an investigation by Borstel last year, which concluded that data manipulation had occurred in Professor Bulfone-Paus' laboratory.

This led to the retraction earlier this year of 12 papers she had published between 1999 and 2009.

The investigation panel blamed the misconduct on two Russian postdoctoral researchers, but also ruled that as their supervisor, Professor Bulfone-Paus bore "significant responsibility".

Her lab was downsized and she resigned as a director of the centre.

Lubeck has also opened an inquiry into the fresh allegations concerning both professors, none of which involve papers that the Russian postdoctoral researchers were involved with. The inquiry is not expected to report until the end of the year.

Both the original and the recent allegations were made by Professor Bulfone-Paus' former colleague Karin Wiebauer, a freelance molecular and computer biologist.

Dr Wiebauer said she was puzzled about how Professor Paus' explanation of the multiplications squared with the methods section of the six papers in question, which suggested that the relevant experiments "clearly differ in at least one important parameter from one another".

"Most importantly, there are four different protocols given for the preparation of the RNA," she said.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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