An HIV Researcher Was Sentenced to 5 Years in Prison for Falsifying Data

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Faked AIDS Research
Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP/Corbis

Dong-Pyou Han, a former biochemist at Iowa State University, conducted some pretty serious research misconduct by falsifying the results of a number of HIV vaccine trials. Among other things, he “spiked rabbit blood samples with human HIV antibodies so that the vaccine appeared to have caused the animals to develop immunity to the virus,” explains Nature. It’s no surprise, then, that when the scandal came down on Han he was fired from his job and banned from receiving federal research funds for three years — the latter of these two sanctions being, as Nature points out, effectively a professional death sentence for someone in Han’s line of work. What is a surprise is that he’s now been sentenced to a prison term of almost five years.

The reason Han ended up facing criminal charges in the first place is that he caught the attention of Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is particularly interested in these sorts of research misconduct cases. After the initial punishments were leveled against Han, Grassley intervened, inquiring about what he saw as rather light sanctions. That led to a spotlight on Han, which led to more media coverage, which led to federal charges, which led to the prison sentence. In February, he pled guilty “to two felony charges of making false statements to obtain NIH research grants,” writes Nature.

This is an unusual outcome for this sort of misconduct case, Nature notes:

The case has raised some concern among experts in scientific misconduct. The very few researchers who face criminal charges are not necessarily those who have caused the most harm to other scientists’ careers, or to science generally. “We’re so preoccupied with major cases and so subject to policy pressure, we’ve lost sight of the larger picture,” says Nicholas Steneck, an expert in research integrity at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Grassley appears to agree — telling the Senate in July, “I worry that other cases may go unnoticed or unaddressed if there isn’t a public outcry.” He argues that lawmakers would not need to involve themselves in such matters if some government agencies that oversee research grants could levy harsher penalties and had more capacity to investigate alleged fraud.

The article’s worth reading in full — it clearly explains how these sorts of investigations work at the level of federal grants and research.