University of Kentucky researcher accused of falsifying data for a decade

A former high-ranking researcher at the University of Kentucky has been penalized by federal investigators in a scientific misconduct case that spanned a decade and included allegations that he falsified data in at least 10 papers and numerous grant applications.

Eric J. Smart, who was an associate professor and vice-chairman of the UK Department of Pediatrics and the Barnstable-Brown Chair in Diabetes Research, resigned from UK in May.

Smart voluntarily agreed to a "debarment" for seven years, in which he will not be involved in federal programs or research, according to the Office of Research Integrity with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the National Institutes of Health.

A summary of the misconduct case against Smart was included in the Nov. 20 Federal Register, the daily journal of the U.S. Government. No criminal charges have been filed against Smart and he has not been asked to make any financial restitution.

Smart is now working as a chemistry teacher at Bourbon County High School, according to Superintendent Lana Fryman. In an interview Monday, Fryman said she had not known of any problems at UK before he was hired in the fall of 2011, before he resigned from UK.

Smart did not respond to calls from the Herald-Leader seeking comment but he told Fryman Monday that the allegations were "absolutely untrue," she said.

"He said there is no evidence to base their allegations on," Fryman said.

She called Smart an "excellent teacher."

"He really goes above and beyond. The kids really like him. The faculty really like him," Fryman said.

William Thro, UK's general counsel said "the university believes, and through our internal process found him guilty of research misconduct, and the federal government reached the same conclusion. Otherwise we would not have this settlement agreement."

The U.S. Office of Research Integrity did not return calls seeking comment on Monday.

Jim Tracy, UK's vice president of research, oversaw two internal investigations starting in 2010 that were forwarded to federal investigators in 2010 and 2012. He said the incident should not reflect poorly on UK, noting that scientific fraud has happened at many universities, but does hurt the cause of research.

"It's a slap in the face to all good scientists when it happens anywhere because it does erode confidence in what we do," he said.

Smart arrived at UK as a Ph.D. researcher in 1996 and had pulled in his first $1 million grant by 2000. When he was awarded the endowed chair in 2003, a UK press release said he used "novel approaches" to understand caveolae, parts of cell membranes that regulate molecular signaling. His research brought in $8 million in federal grants in a highly competitive field, according to UK.

Much of his funding came from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Smart's salary was almost $164,000, according to UK. He oversaw 13 scientists in his lab, which was shut down in the wake of the federal investigation.

Tracy said an allegation of misconduct was made internally against Smart in 2010. Under federal and UK procedures, the internal investigation found enough evidence to forward to the federal authorities later that year. However, the inquiry prompted more allegations, and a second investigation was completed in March. The federal Office of Research Integrity then investigated both cases together.

According to the federal report, Smart had reported findings from non-existent "knockout" mice — a mouse that had certain genes bred out of it — in five grant applications and three progress reports.

Overall, the Federal Register reported, the falsified data appeared in 10 published papers, one submitted manuscript and seven grant applications over 10 years. Allegedly fabricated images appeared in 45 figures in Smart's research, the report said. Under the agreement, Smart must request retractions or corrections for 10 published papers.

The breadth of fabrication is what makes his case a very big deal, said Eugenie Samuel Reich, a journalist for the science journal Nature, and the author of Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World.

"It is quite a serious case," said Reich, who is based in Cambridge, Mass. "This is quite serious because it's a very large number of fabricated figures."

Reich reported on the case for Nature, and compared it to that of Eric Poehlman, a researcher on aging at the University of Vermont who served a year in jail in 2006 after faking data over nearly a decade.

Tracy said these kinds of scientific misconduct cases are difficult on university communities. For example, Smart's co-authors may have their work tainted by their association with him.

"Obviously if people have been involved in a piece of research, and they've been honest, they're damaged," he said. "It's particularly bad for graduate students," whose research is just getting started.

Thro said UK's process on academic misconduct is mandated by federal rules.

"Our existing process works. It worked correctly in this particular instance," Thro said. "We all wish we had known about it sooner, but as soon as the university learned about it, it took swift and decisive action."

Tricia Barnstable Brown of Louisville, whose family endowed Smart's chair and other research at UK, said her family was informed about the issue without details because of confidentiality concerns.

"We were certain that it would be and has been dealt with appropriately," she wrote in an email to the Herald-Leader. "The endowment is intact and well preserved. This will allow the University to recruit an outstanding pediatric diabetes researcher. We were assured that all other researchers are doing excellent work".