Science briefs: Dutch psychologist to be prosecuted, and Monsanto’s GM corn

Dutch authorities to prosecute psychologist Diederik Stapel

Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel is under investigation by the Openbaar Ministerie (Public Prosecution Service) of the Netherlands for alleged fraud and misuse of government money. Authorities have confiscated Stapel’s equipment and records and are attempting to determine whether the academic misconduct for which he was fired last year constitutes a criminal offence. When the investigation is concluded (which could take several months), they will decide whether or not to prosecute Stapel.

In September, 2011, Stapel, a major researcher in his field, was suspended from his post at Tillburg University when it came to light that he had fabricated large amounts of data in dozens of studies. The commission that investigated his work recommended that the university file a criminal report and consider the possibility of revoking his degree. On Nov. 10, Stapel voluntarily gave up his PhD from the University of Amsterdam.

Stapel’s fabrications varied in scale. In some cases he massaged the data to get a desired result, and in others entire data sets were faked – questionnaires were “administered” by Stapel alone at nonexistent public schools. Stapel’s work was funded with EU $2.2 million in grant money from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. Dutch investigators are trying to determine whether Stapel, in falsifying his accounts and using the money for research he did not actually carry out, committed fraud.

To date, at least 25 papers with Stapel as a co-author have been retracted. According to the science website Retraction Watch, if he is convicted and jailed, he would be one of only three people to serve jail time for offences involving fabrication of data.

Verdict out on Monsanto’s GM corn

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has deemed a controversial study of genetically modified food to be “of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment.” The study, published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, observed tumours earlier and with greater frequency in rats fed the NK603 variety of genetically modified corn, created by Monsanto. Since it was published, it has been seized on by organizations concerned about genetically modified crops. However, several scientists have pointed out design flaws in the study.

EFSA criticized the study’s small number of test groups and small sample sizes, the use of a strain of rats prone to tumours, and the unconventional statistical analysis, among other things. They have asked the study’s author, Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University of Caen, to provide them with additional information not contained in the published article so they can make a more in-depth assessment. Séralini said in a press conference last month that an EFSA review of his study would be a conflict of interest, because the EFSA approved the strain of corn that is being investigated.

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment came to conclusions similar to the EFSA’s. The French Agency for Food, Environmental, and Occupational Health & Safety is currently reviewing the study, and is going to publish its findings on Oct. 20.