A Year Of Feuds And Fraud For Science

This artist's illustration provided by NASA Wednesday Jan. 25, 2006 shows what astronomers say may be the smallest and most distant planet known to be orbiting a star outside our own solar system.
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.


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.


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.