Whistleblowers: Crystal-clear injustice?

September 21, 2001

Bath University had a significant financial interest in the outcome of an investigation of scientific misconduct that it dismissed without hearing the complainant's evidence.

The THES reported in July that Australian scholar Graeme Laver had alleged that Garry Taylor, a former Bath professor, had unfairly failed to credit him as a key collaborator in a breakthrough research project. Bath dismissed Professor Laver's complaint as groundless, but its investigating committee appeared to try to rebuff his efforts to submit evidence. It acknowledged in its final report: "We have not corresponded directly with Professor Laver. We have taken the view that our remit is to examine the evidence that is available within the University of Bath."

The investigators were unable to hear Professor Laver's views on an email he received from Professor Taylor in May 1999 that read: "I agree that your contribution to getting the project off the ground was fundamental."

In March 2001, Bath dismissed the complaint in a two-line letter to Professor Laver, who is a fellow of the Royal Society and holds the Australia Medal.

It has now emerged that Bath signed a research deal with US firm BioCryst Pharmaceuticals in October 1999 to exploit the research breakthrough, shortly after the dispute began, but before its investigation.

Professor Laver's allegations centre on his claim that he was the first person to crystallise the protein of the flu-like Newcastle disease virus, NDV HN, and that he taught research collaborators at St Jude Children's Hospital in Tennessee how to grow useful crystals for X-ray diffraction. Professor Laver said that he was instrumental in taking the project for the X-ray analysis to Professor Taylor, in Bath, who discovered the protein's structure. This greatly improves knowledge of how the virus acts.

Professor Laver said he was excluded as a co-author of a research paper published last year in the journal Virology, which described the crystallisation of the protein. Professor Taylor had said to Professor Laver in the May 1999 email: "If the paper reports the crystallisation, it would be appropriate to put you on it."

Professor Taylor, who is now at the University of St Andrews, and scientists at St Jude signed a deal to develop the research with BioCryst Pharmaceuticals, for an undisclosed sum of money. BioCryst declined to confirm any details but has publicly reported: "In October 1999 we entered into an agreement with St Jude, Tennessee, University of Bath in England and the University of St Andrews in Scotland for research and development related to PIV (the parainfluenza virus). Under the agreement... University of Bath... will provide us with compounds that will form the basis for our design and development of potential drug candidates for the treatment of parainfluenza virus infections."

Bath refused to comment on the suggestion that its investigation might not have met the principles of natural justice because of a financial link with the research. A spokesman said: "There is a commercial agreement covering the results of this research. Since it is commercial it must remain confidential and the university has no further comment."

Professor Taylor insisted he has always acted properly, stressing that inquiries at both St Jude and Bath have cleared him of any misconduct, but he declined to comment this week. He has argued that the thousands of crystals used to discover the structure of the protein were not grown by Professor Laver, who is based at the Australian National University, but were grown in St Jude and that the growth of the crystals, which involves trial and error and is not regarded as an intellectual endeavour, was insignificant to the final determination of the structure.

But as a textbook on protein structures makes clear: "The first requirement for protein-structure determination is to grow suitable crystals. Without crystals there can be no X-ray structure determination of a protein."

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