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A Year Of Feuds And Fraud For Science

Astronomers feuded about calling Pluto a planet. Ornithologists clashed over whether a magnificent woodpecker really did come back from extinction.

A top scientific journal made a red-faced retraction over fraudulent claims about stem cells. And the nation's top food and drug regulator ended up in court, admitting he owned stocks in businesses his agency oversaw.

2006 was a year that science all-too-publicly aired its dirty laundry.

The usual hope for cures and other gee-whiz good news coming out of laboratories was overshadowed this year by contentious debates, ethical problems, complaints of government censorship, recalls and medical tests gone awry.

"There were many disappointments," said Rice University astronomy professor Neal Lane, a former director of the National Science Foundation. "You wouldn't look at the whole year as a high point in American science or world science."

Biologist Arri Eisen, director of the Science & Society program at Emory University in Atlanta, notes a big change from the days of his father, a geneticist about 20 years ago.

In the past, "we didn't have to account for much. We had white coats, we did everything right," Eisen said. Now with more transparency and ethics education in science, "we'll show our blemishes like everyone else."

There were plenty to show in 2006.

FEUDING SCIENTISTS

For 75 years, second-graders knew the answer to the question: How many planets are there? Nine. But in August, the world's leading astronomers mucked up everything.

Because of changing definitions and smaller and more distant solar system objects, a panel of astronomers at the scientists' leading convention recommended adding three more planets to bring the solar system to 12. But the convention vetoed adding the three and then stripped Pluto of its planethood, calling it a dwarf. The solar system dropped to eight planets, leading hundreds of astronomers to petition against the change to no avail.

Closer to home, bird-watchers got excited in 2005 when ornithologists said they saw, heard and even got grainy video of the ivory-billed woodpecker in an Arkansas swamp. The bird had been thought to be extinct for decades.

Maybe it still is extinct, some researchers said in March. They looked at the videos again and said it might be the more common pileated woodpecker. The debate and the search for the ivory-bill continue.

Global warming was big news in 2006, with an Al Gore movie and figures showing that 2005 was the hottest year on record. For meteorologists, a debate simmered about global warming's role in the recent increase in the number and strength of Atlantic hurricanes. Global warming experts said hurricanes were goosed by the fuel of warmer-than-normal ocean water, while hurricane specialists said it was part of a regular cycle of activity that occurs about every 25 years.

FRAUD AND FINANCIAL CONFLICTS

In January, the top journal Science acknowledged it had been defrauded earlier by a South Korean researcher's headline-grabbing claims of a stem cell breakthrough. Hwang Woo-suk claimed to have extracted stem cells from a cloned human embryo in 2004, and to have created stem cells genetically matched to specific patients in 2005.

In July, the Journal of the American Medical Association, just days after announcing a crackdown on researchers who do not disclose drug company ties, acknowledged that researchers hid financial conflicts in a study in that week's issue. It was the third such conflict in three months.

Lester Crawford, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, pleaded guilty in October to a conflict of interest and false reporting of information about stocks he owned in food, beverage and medical device companies he was in charge of regulating.

In December, a top National Institutes of Health Alzheimer's researcher was charged with felony conflict of interest; prosecutors said he earned $285,000 in consulting fees from a pharmaceutical giant.

SCIENCE AND SECRECY

Scientists accused the Bush administration of censorship on environmental issues of global warming and endangered species. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overruled its science advisory panel's call for extremely tough air pollution soot rules.

In February, a political appointee who worked in NASA's public relations department resigned after reportedly trying to restrict access to Jim Hansen, a NASA climate scientist who has been active in global warming research.

Then in December, the U.S. Geological Survey issued new rules that required administration pre-screening of all scientists' published research and talks, which some scientists said borders on censorship.

Leading up to the second space shuttle launch after the 2003 Columbia disaster, two top NASA officials publicly dissented over safety issues with NASA's decision to launch Discovery in July.

RECALLS AND DRUG TESTS

The FDA in February shut down a New Jersey company accused of stealing cadaver tissue for transplant, including the leg bones of former "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke. Thousands of body parts were recalled.

In March, six healthy volunteers in a London drug test trial went into convulsions, suffered organ failure and lapsed into comas within hours of being medicated.

Studies found that drug-coated heart stents may in rare instances lead to potentially fatal blood clots.

In the summer, spinach tainted with the E. coli bacteria sickened more than 200 people, killing three. The FDA warned consumers nationwide not to eat fresh spinach. And by year's end another E. coli outbreak was linked to Taco Bell restaurants.

SOME GOOD NEWS TOO

Not everything coming out of the FDA was gloomy. In June, the agency approved the first-ever vaccine to fight a type of cancer. The new shot protects against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.

In November, the FDA decided it was now safe to allow silicone breast implants once again — after banning them 14 years earlier.

Because of NASA's successful shuttle launches, the space agency reversed itself and said it would try to fix the Hubble Space Telescope in 2008.

Early this year, Asia's much feared bird flu started popping up in Europe and the Middle East, then disappeared and never made it to the United States. Though still a potential human threat, it has not yet become the global epidemic that public health officials worry about.

Another busy hurricane season wilted, ending up weaker than forecasters' predictions. Scientists said the weather phenomenon El Nino gets the credit.

And finally in what was good news for the United States but not elsewhere, 2006 was the year the U.S. swept the science Nobel prizes — the first time since 1983.

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