Whistleblowers: Scholar queries inquiry

July 6, 2001

An Australian scholar's allegations of scientific misconduct were dismissed by an inquiry committee at Bath University even though it did not directly involve him in its investigations. The committee appears to have been unaware of a significant document, obtained by The THES .

Bath set up an inquiry last year following a complaint by Graeme Laver, professor of biochemistry at the Australian National University. Professor Laver is a distinguished scientist who holds the Australia Medal and is a fellow of the Royal Society. He claimed that he had been unfairly excluded as a co-author of a research paper, by its lead author, former Bath researcher Gary Taylor, now a professor at St Andrews University.

The paper, published last year in the journal Virology , described the crystallisation of "NDV HN", a protein of the "Newcastle disease virus". This allows a 3-D X-ray to be taken, revealing the structure of the protein. This aids knowledge of how the virus acts.

Professor Laver claimed he was the first to crystalise the protein and was instrumental in taking the project to Bath for development. He complained about his exclusion to the Wellcome Trust, one of the research sponsors, which passed his correspondence to Bath.

But when Bath set up a committee, it appeared reluctant to involve Professor Laver's evidence. In December 2000, Professor Laver emailed Bath's science faculty secretary, Kavina McGuire: "It is not clear to me if I need to do anything now, or whether I should wait until I hear further from you," he said. He was reassured: "The committee will contact you if they wish additional information."

He heard nothing until March when Bath's registrar, Jonathan Bursey, wrote him a two-sentence letter stating that his complaint was "groundless" and the matter was closed.

On June 15, The THES contacted Bath regarding the conduct of the inquiry and its failure to give reasons for its decision. On the same day, Bath wrote to Professor Laver giving him a "summary" of the findings.

According to documents supplied to Professor Laver, the committee's inquiry report noted: "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 committee found that Professor Laver was not the first to grow useful crystals of NDV HN and his crystals were not used to determine the structure of NDV HN. It also said: "Professor Laver did not play a key role in establishing work at... Bath on NDV HN."

But had the committee been prepared to hear Professor Laver's evidence, they could have heard his views on an email sent to him by Professor Taylor in May 1999: "I acknowledge... that if it wasn't for your encouragement, we would never have gotten started on this. I also acknowledge that you put effort into growing... NDV HN... So I agree that your contribution to getting the HN crystallography project off the ground was fundamental."

Professor Taylor was frank about Professor Laver's contribution to the forthcoming disputed paper: "If the... paper reports the crystallisation, it would be appropriate to put you on it. Would that be sufficient?" The paper eventually published did describe the crystallisation, but Professor Laver's name was missing.

Professor Taylor told The THES : "The two funding bodies (that supported the work) initiated investigations into the allegations at the two institutions involved (Bath and St Jude, in the United States). Neither complaint was upheld by the independent committees." He declined to comment further.

A spokeswoman for Bath said it had formed a committee to establish whether there was prima facie evidence of misconduct. The committee concluded the complaint to be groundless. "The University of Bath accepts the findings and considers the matter closed," she said.

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