Whistle-blower in UK research-fraud case: 'The system is badly broken'

Dr. Eric Smart, Chair of Barnstable-Brown Pediatric Laboratories, in his lab on the UK campus in Lexington in December 2007.
Dr. Eric Smart, Chair of Barnstable-Brown Pediatric Laboratories, in his lab on the UK campus in Lexington in December 2007. Herald-Leader

In April 2009, William Everson, a faculty researcher at the Kentucky Pediatric Research Institute at the University of Kentucky, was helping a technician in the lab prepare a presentation for a scientific meeting. He was casually reviewing the information from the 2005 grant that the tech was discussing when he noticed that the grant paperwork, filled out by his boss, Research Institute director Eric Smart, cited the lab's research with special, genetically altered mice.

The only problem was that Everson knew that the lab — mostly aimed at childhood diabetes research — had not had those mice ready for experimentation until 2007 or 2008 — years after the grant had started.

"I just thought, 'That can't be right,'" Everson said in a recent interview. "I talked to a colleague and said, 'What do I do?' A day later, I wrote to Jay Perman (then dean of the College of Medicine) and asked for a meeting."

That email set off reverberations that continue to be felt at UK and beyond.

Two investigations at UK and one by federal authorities concluded that Smart had made up data about those mice on a grant application, false information that spiraled out to numerous scientific papers, progress reports and other applications.

Smart blamed Everson, who was investigated and cleared by UK and federal officials. Neither man is now at UK, nor does Smart's lab exist.

The 11 other lab employees, like Everson, were given a year to find other work. If they were not successful, as in Everson's case, they were let go.

UK has never identified Everson as the whistle-blower; however, he agreed to speak with the Herald-Leader about his involvement in a case that has highlighted the long ascent and quick fall of one of UK's rising stars, and the collateral damage left behind.

Everson remains deeply shaken by the events and what he feels has been a lack of response by UK toward his claims that Smart sexually harassed employees and retaliated against him for his whistle-blowing by killing the mice that Everson was using in his research.

"I want my career back," Everson said. "I would like those mouse lines returned. But the biggest tragedy is the intangible of what we were actually building" in understanding the causes and, potentially, cures for childhood diabetes. "What we were doing was singular and important, and now it's gone."

'Under intense pressure'

Everson came to UK from the University of Cincinnati in 2003, recruited by the charisma and grant-writing prowess of Eric Smart, who started out in physiology at UK in 1996.

Just a few years later, UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. would put UK on an ambitious trajectory to Top 20 status, which included improving UK's stature in the race for federal research dollars. Smart was part of that climb; he brought in his first $1 million grant by 2000, and he was named the Barnstable Brown Endowed Chair in Diabetes Research in 2003. By the time he resigned in 2012, his grant funding totalled $8 million.

Between 2001 and 2006, overall grants and contracts coming to UK grew from $212 million to $290 million a year. (Since then, research dollars have increased to almost $300 million, thanks to federal stimulus dollars in the wake of the economic meltdown in 2008.)

Smart's salary was $164,000, and he also received several rounds of Wethington Awards of $50,000, given to promising researchers.

Smart's main research was in understanding caveolae, parts of cell membranes that regulate molecular signaling. Much of his funding came from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

That work depended on using "knockout" mice, in which certain genes were bred out. It's an expensive and lengthy process to create such mice, and Smart had not received them in 2005, according to Everson and subsequent investigations.

But he pretended he had, according to the investigative reports. Investigators concluded that falsified data appeared in 10 published papers, one submitted manuscript and seven grant applications over 10 years. Fabricated images appeared in 45 figures in Smart's research, the report said.

Without admitting guilt, Smart entered an agreement with the federal authorities to exclude himself from any federally funded scientific activity for seven years. Currently, he's a chemistry teacher at Bourbon County High School. He received his teaching degree and started in 2011, when he was on suspension at UK because of the investigations.

Smart continues to blame Everson. Although he has declined to comment personally to the Herald-Leader, he told Bourbon County Superintendent Lana Fryman that Everson was to blame for the whole situation.

"His (Smart's) explanation was that Mr. Everson, who worked in that department with him, is the one who did it," Fryman said. "He wanted to be named as department chair and was very upset that he wasn't."

Everson said Smart was working on so many projects with his labs and other colleagues at UK that only he had a clear idea of everything under way.

"Most of the staff were kept under pressure to work hard, and worked largely on projects in isolation from what other techs were doing," Everson said in a follow-up email. "That is part of the reason things were not readily discovered: Few people knew the work being done, as individual technicians were often working on multiple projects; work was 'driven by grant deadlines' under intense pressure."

Other employees and colleagues of Smart's have been reluctant to discuss the case.

One of Smart's former collaborators, Haining Zhu, said: "No one ever realized that had happened," about the fraud. He declined to comment further.

Another researcher at UK, Xiang An-Li, said the whole incident surprised everyone.

"He is a good person and I still consider him a good friend," he said.

As soon as UK received Everson's complaint, officials began investigating. Smart was put on paid leave and was told to work at home. But at least one UK official was looking out for Smart: his then-boss, Tim Bricker, the former chair of pediatrics, wrote him a recommendation letter to the state's teacher certification agency, calling him "an outstanding teacher." Bricker is thought to have also removed a letter of reprimand from Smart's personnel file that detailed his yearlong probation for sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment in his lab.

Bricker moved to Texas in 2011 and has been unavailable for comment.

'Collateral damage'

Scientific-misconduct cases pepper the academic landscape, from prestigious research institutions to flagship state schools such as UK. In October, the journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an analysis of more than 2,000 retractions of scientific research. In three-quarters of the cases, the retractions were because of misconduct, a much higher rate than was expected.

One of the study's authors, Ferric Fang, a professor of microbiology at the University of Washington, said that fraud cannot be prevented, but he thinks the increase can be linked to a more mercenary view of scientific research.

"I don't think it can be completely prevented, but it may be appropriate for UK to take a look at what their criteria are for judging someone's success," he said in a telephone interview.

He compared medical schools today to luxury malls with small boutiques. Each researcher, like each boutique, must attract revenue.

"If they aren't successful, they cast them aside," Fang said. "The faculty feel sort of dispensable, and scholarship is not viewed as an end in itself.

"The quality of work is reduced to how many dollars they bring in. If you talk to scientists, a lot of people feel that way."

Fang said he understands that research universities want to attract good scientists and remain solvent, "but it's up to one institution what kind of culture it creates. They need to look beyond the mere dollar signs and look at the big picture. Then they might recognize an imposter like Dr. Smart, who wasn't holding to the values that the administration at UK say they uphold."

Fang said Smart's case was similar to many other cases in which the person at the top is the only one with all the information, while technicians are given different pieces of research to work on.

"The people who are working for them who may get drawn into this web are really acting in a pathological environment created by the principal investigator," Fang said.

Fang also is disturbed by the idea that Everson, the whistle-blower in the Smart case, was let go by UK when at least one UK employee helped Smart find new employment.

"What kind of message is that for an institution to have this guy who exposes this terrible act of misconduct and then gets fired?" Fang said. "Whistle-blowers pay a huge price. To work under someone and you slowly come to realize you were wrong and you have to turn them in, it's a very courageous thing to do and very uncomfortable."

However, Fang said, it's not yet clear whether federal charges will be pursued in the Smart case, as has happened in similar cases. In at least one past case, a whistle-blower received some financial compensation in a settlement with the federal government and universities.

UK officials declined to comment on Everson's situation. "With respect to allegations of retaliation, senior university officials investigated any and all allegations of retaliation against any individual who reported Dr. Smart's research misconduct. If there was evidence of retaliation, the university took appropriate action," UK general counsel Bill Thro said.

Jim Tracy, UK's vice president for research, also declined to speak of Everson.

"There is no question if you look at famous cases, there is a collateral damage, and that's one of the real shames of this," Tracy said. He worked at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where in 2006, six graduate students turned in their professor, biologist Elizabeth Goodwin, for falsifying data. According to media reports at the time, the graduate students were told that their work had to begin again because of the taint of misconduct. Several have left academic research, Tracy said.

"It can be a huge career price for some," he said.

William Everson puts himself in that group.

"The system is badly broken," he wrote in an email. "I doubt anyone cares about what happened to me; but there is value in telling the story 'for the next person' who finds the unthinkable has happened, and they too are compelled by professional ethics, federal statutes and of course, conscience, to act."

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