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University.Gov? How Much Fraud Is There In Government Financed University Research?

June 26, 2010

In a rare criminal prosecution for research misconduct, a former University of Wisconsin-Madison genetics researcher pleaded guilty Friday to submitting false data to the federal government.

Elizabeth Goodwin of Upton, Mass., pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement, admitting she included false data in a progress report to convince federal reviewers that her lab had made more progress than was actually the case.

In a plea agreement, Goodwin acknowledged she committed misconduct in science “because falsifying data when reporting research results is a serious deviation from accepted practices in the scientific community.”

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Under the deal, Goodwin also agreed to pay $50,000 in restitution to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as to a voluntary exclusion from federal research for three years.

Goodwin, 51, faces a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine when U.S. District Judge William Conley sentences her Sept. 3. But her attorney, Dean Strang, and assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy O’Shea say they will recommend no punishment beyond the restitution and voluntary exclusion from research.

O’Shea said the case was prosecuted rather than handled administratively because the federal government “took the view that research misconduct is quite serious” and compromises its ability to award grant funding fairly.

UW-Madison is a major research university, receiving $584 million in federal research grants in 2008, the second most among public universities. O’Shea said the prosecution was the first of a UW-Madison researcher for misconduct since 1999, when an engineering professor was sentenced to 3 months in prison and fined $10,000 for falsifying grant proposals.

Goodwin, a former associate genetics professor, worked at UW-Madison from 2000 to 2006. She resigned after the school launched an investigation into her research based on complaints from graduate students who worked in her laboratory.

The school investigation found she improperly relabeled charts and graphics in three grant applications. Strang said that, while she pleaded guilty to one count, Goodwin does acknowledge submitting false data on three documents related to one federal grant.

Strang said her lab work was basic research into gene sequencing using worms commonly studied by scientists.

“What’s most important from our perspective, is that while some of the information in the application for grant money was bad, the science in her lab at all times was good,” he said. “The work coming out of it was good.”

He said none of her findings in papers that were published were false or had to be retracted. But Strang said she agreed to the restitution because she acknowledged that false data distorts grant competitions.

“You don’t want scientists doing this. They are under incredible pressure in competing for grant dollars,” he said. “And part of this is making an example of Dr. Goodwin. Up to a point, that’s understandable.”

O’Shea said the case took years because investigators had to first understand the science in order to build their case, and then had months of discussions with Goodwin and her attorney. He said the university’s cooperation was critical to building the case.

UW-Madison’s top research compliance official, Bill Mellon, called the case “a very serious breach of the public’s confidence.”

Goodwin now works in private industry and wants to put the episode behind her, Strang said.

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