For four years, Jed Meltzer studied communication disorders at the National Institutes of Health, using brain-imaging technology to pinpoint the impact of strokes on speech. His postdoctoral training, he wrote on his blog, comprised “some of the most scientifically satisfying years of my life. “I got to collect amazing, irreplaceable data, and I got to learn from the best and work with unparalleled resources. Most importantly, I got to publish several papers that established my scientific reputation and positioned me to move into a faculty position in 2010.”
But now that data is useless for Meltzer and about a dozen other scientists caught in a dispute that is unusually fierce, even for the highly competitive world of elite biomedical research. The leadership at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, where Meltzer worked, has banned the use of data collected over 25 years from more than 1,000 volunteers in the lab of neurologist Allen R. Braun, citing “serious and widespread” record-keeping errors, all of them clerical matters related to forms used for matters such as screening volunteers or logging physical exams. But there have been no allegations that data was altered, plagiarized or fabricated, and no one’s safety was threatened — the kind of misconduct that usually leads to such severe penalties in scientific research. Many people say the harsh punishment stems, instead, from a long-standing conflict at the institute, whose leadership has forced numerousscientists like Braun to leave in recent years.
Critics contend that millions of dollars’ worth of research has been squandered at a time when NIH faces the prospect of sharp budget cuts from the Trump administration.The penalty is “absolutely bizarre,” said David Poeppel, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University who has followed the controversy in his field. “It’s actually unheard of. It’s also unclear who’s being served by that. Certainly not the taxpayer.”
NIDCD Director James Battey and other leaders of the 29-year-old institute — one of the smallest parts of NIH — declined to comment. In letters to Meltzer and others, however, Battey contended that a February 2016 audit conducted by a contractor hired by NIDCD concluded that the work in Braun’s lab was “irretrievably compromised and we felt that the only course was to close” the studies.
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