WINNIPEG – The University of Manitoba has sanctioned a former researcher after an internal investigation concluded he faked data and made up experiments that led to a seemingly groundbreaking study published in one of the world's most prestigious science journals.
The news that disgraced U of M plant science researcher Fawzi Razem committed the biggest sin in science comes eight months after the journal Nature retracted what was once considered a breakthrough study.
Razem, working in the lab of Prof. Robert Hill, claimed to have discovered a receptor for the major hormone linked to a plant's response to environmental stress. The receptor that has eluded scientists for two decades was identified in an article and featured in the editor's summary in the January 2006 edition of Nature, one of the world's most renowned international science journals.
The receptor was long sought after, as it could help plants better adapt to cold or drought.
Concerns about the research emerged last summer when a team of researchers from New Zealand couldn't replicate Razem's work -- a red flag that there could be serious problems with the original findings.
A December 2008 online edition of Nature said the study made "erroneous conclusions" and there is no evidence to support Razem's findings.
The university would not initially confirm if an internal investigation was underway.
That changed July 30 when the U of M issued a statement in a newsletter confirming that Razem had committed fraud.
"Specifically, the committee concluded that certain experiments claimed to have been conducted, in fact, were not, and that results were fabricated," the bulletin said. "This case is a very rare and isolated incident, and there are already safeguards in place to prevent such occurrences."
The statement said the U of M has implemented sanctions against Razem and that he will "never be recommended for an academic appointment of any kind at the university."
Razem resigned when the initial allegations surfaced.
The U of M determined the allegations warranted an in-depth investigation and struck a committee that consisted of the academic vice-president and three impartial faculty members. U of M officials could not be reached for comment over the weekend.
Experts say cases of academic fraud are rare and undermine the pillars of scientific research.
"It's a crime against other researchers," said Arthur Schafer, a U of M ethics professor. "It undermines the researchers at the university and the trust of the public and the integrity of the research."
Although few cases are so extreme, Schafer said there is a growing concern in the research community about pressure to "make a name" and garner lucrative corporate sponsors. Schafer said science is one of the few professions where staff have to snag grants to pay for their equipment and assistants, and there is increasing competition for research dollars.
"It's only in the last decade this has come to be a challenge," Schafer said, adding that universities should rely on governments, not corporations, to fund independent research.
In the December 2008 online edition of Nature, New Zealand scientists said there is "no evidence" to indicate the U of M discovered a receptor that can manipulate the major hormone linked to a plant's response to environmental stress. Their study found several inconsistencies.