The prestigious British Medical Journal announced yesterday it is withdrawing work it published by immunologist Ranjit Chandra. The work concerned nutrition for babies.
CBC has reported this story under the headline “Memorial University called ‘real villain’ as BMJ ditches Chandra research”.
Real villain? Major failure of scientific governance? How could this be?
This is the story of a courageous research nurse and a gutless university administration. Nurse Marilyn Harvey worked under Chandra, and came across convincing evidence that the Order of Canada winner was publishing results of research which had not been done. She reported this through the proper channels, and the head of pediatrics at MUN made a formal complaint.
The formal complaint against Chandra for research fraud went through a hearing process, and the Kiefte Committee reported to the administration that Ms. Harvey was to be believed in all important respects, and Dr. Chandra was not. It was the responsibility of the university administration to take disciplinary action.
A blizzard of legal letters and complaints ensued from lawyers hired by Dr. Chandra, and gradually the administration was browbeaten into burying the Kiefte Committee report and pretending everything was fine. So matters more or less rested there, until a courageous CBC documentary in 2006 exposed the findings of the Kiefte report for the first time. Dr. Chandra took offence at the documentary and sued for large money damages in defamation in Ontario. The jury decided the case after a lengthy trial last summer, and threw out the lawsuit. Chandra was out several million dollars in legal costs. But the proceedings exposed the cowardly behaviour of the MUN administration yet again, and again drew the disapproving attention of the BMJ.
Present university officials, in damage control mode, have trotted out the standard excuse that the Kiefte report and the process by which it was arrived at was “flawed”. This is nothing but a sham excuse and continued cover up. If a university which prizes research integrity thinks it has a flawed investigative report, it redoes the investigation, this time without any flaws.
Even the university spin doctors “can’t say why a second committee wasn’t struck.” The answer is obvious. A second committee wasn’t struck because the University’s priority was to bury the scandal, follow the path of ease, and carry on with lucrative research contracts with funders none the wiser. The priority was not to expose scientific fraud. Too messy.
All this skullduggery happened 20 years ago. But the resort of present University authorities to the excuse that the Kiefte report was “flawed”, shows that MUN has not fully digested the integrity lesson. MUN did not strike a second committee into the fraud allegations against Chandra because MUN just wanted the whole scandal to go away. When MUN is able to admit this publicly, we will know they have turned the integrity corner.