Former university professor accused of research misconduct

By Judah Taylor
news@kykernel.com

Following an investigation by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, a decade of work from a former UK professor has been censored following allegations of scientific misconduct.

Eric J. Smart, a former UK professor of pediatrics and physiology, pediatrics vice chair of research and the Barnstable-Brown chair in diabetes research since 2003, ended his 12-year affiliation with UK in May.

On Nov. 20, the ORI released a report of findings and took final action against Smart.

The federal report alleged that during his time with UK, Smart had falsified data that was included in at least 10 published papers and numerous reports and applications.

After a comprehensive internal investigation, UK also found Smart to be guilty of research misconduct for “claiming results that actually never happened,” UK’s General Counsel William Thro said.

Among the falsified data, according to the report and Thro, were five grant applications and three progress reports about nonexistent “knockout” mice, which have been genetically engineered to have at least one gene turned off, or “knocked out,” through a targeted mutation.

The ORI found many of Smart’s published findings to be falsified also. In more than 33 instances the office found Smart to be guilty of manipulating “western blots” — an analytic technique that allows scientists to find a specific protein in a sample of tissue — to falsify data in publications and reports in order to complete his research.

Thro said the incident was “research misconduct of the most serious nature.”

Thro said that UK has thousands of researchers on and off the main campus who are working honestly, and that this incident should not take away from what other researchers are doing.

“The stuff our researchers do is vital to the university, to the commonwealth and really to society as a whole,” he said. “We have people who are trying to create medicines and procedures who are trying to make lives better … life easier, more comfortable or overall safer. … There is no place in such an environment for the type of scientific misconduct that was at issue here.”

The Kernel could not reach Smart for comment Tuesday.

Bourbon County superintendent Lana Fryman, who hired Smart to work as a chemistry teacher at Bourbon County High School while he was still affiliated with UK in 2011, told the Lexington Herald-Leader in an interview published Monday that “he (Smart) said there is no evidence to base their (the ORI’s) allegations on.”

“He (Smart) really goes above and beyond,” Fryman told the Herald-Leader. “The kids really like him. The faculty really like him.”

Following the investigation, Smart agreed to a settlement with the federal government that will leave him debarred and suspended for the next seven years, according to the report, in which time he will not be able to advise to, research or raise grants for government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health.

When asked how UK will move forward, Thro said, “We will continue to do the outstanding research that we are doing. We will make sure that our policies continue to be effective … we will also endeavor to reinforce the culture that we currently have of no tolerance for research misconduct.”