(This discussion piece appeared on the ABC’s Ockham’s Razor programme).
Robyn Williams: Fraud. In science it’s rare, and usually found out, but devastatingly destructive. Strangely, it’s often perpetrated by the very clever who couldn’t be bothered doing all that tedious lab work. Ian Freckleton QC is concerned. He’s Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne in law and psychiatry, and here he gives three examples of famous cases.
Ian Freckleton: The first is Jan Hendrik Schön, who was a researcher in condensed matter physics and nanotechnology, he received his PhD from the University of Konstanz in 1997, and then was employed by Bell Laboratories, the institution that had done much of the work toward the invention of the first laser, and had been the first to use radio telescopes to detect the echo of the Big Bang. Schön’s research was into the transformation of the properties of materials by the application of an electric field. He built high-performance transistors not from the usual silicon but from the semi-conductor copper gallium selenide (CGS). He described what he maintained was the world’s first organic electrical laser, and the first ever light-emitting transistor. In 2001, he claimed to have built the world’s smallest transistor by wiring up a single molecule and having used a thin layer of organic dye molecules to assemble an electronic circuit when acted on by an electric current. This placed Schön at the forefront of international nanotechnology research. The potential of his work was enormous as it raised the possibility of a movement away from silicon-based electronics to organic electronics, allowing a dramatic reduction in the size of chips.
As of 2001, Schön was publishing a new research paper every eight days. This included a series of studies in both Nature and Science that promised a transformation in nanotechnology. However, clouds began to gather. Professor Lydia Sohn of Princeton University and Professor Paul McEuen of Cornell University expressed concern about anomalies in Schön’s research, including what they suggested was his use of duplicate data. Under pressure, Bell Laboratories appointed a formal committee chaired by Professor Malcolm Beasley of Stanford University to conduct an investigation into the concerns raised. One of its first acts was to request Schön to supply his raw data. He maintained, however, that he could not do so as he had not kept his laboratory notes and that his data files had been deleted from his computer. He also maintained that his experimental samples had been discarded or were not available for examination. The Committee found Schön to have engaged in 16 instances of fraud. It concluded that he had substituted, manipulated and fabricated data sets. Schön admitted though to having made ‘mistakes.’ In 2004 the University of Konstanz revoked his doctoral degree. Schön took his grievances to the courts, at first successfully, but then lost on appeal…