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Hellinga case demands resolution

For the past two years the University has been investigating the research conduct of Homme Hellinga, the James B. Duke professor of biochemistry, who was forced to retract two published papers in 2008 after peers called his research into question.

The investigation left a lot of scorched earth—it tarnished the reputation of Mary Dwyer, one of Hellinga’s graduate students, and resulted in Hellinga’s research being publicly questioned in Nature magazine.

In December, The Chronicle reported that the University concluded a review of Hellinga’s research conduct. Unfortunately, we know nothing about the review’s findings.

The Hellinga case provoked an interrogation of Hellinga and Duke across the scientific community—a community that extends far beyond the walls of the Gothic Wonderland. A private, internal resolution does nothing to bring closure to this very public issue. A true resolution demands that the University release the findings of its review.

Under federal regulations, the University only has to release the findings of the review if Hellinga is found guilty of research misconduct as defined by federal law. If Hellinga’s conduct violated University, but not federal standards, the University does not have to release the findings of the review.

Keeping the review’s findings secret makes sense from a public relations standpoint. Hellinga is a distinguished researcher and Duke has an interest in protecting him. Sweeping the review under the rug could also avoid increased media scrutiny of the University in general.

But public confidence cannot be restored through secrecy. The Hellinga review affected a lot of people. It dragged an innocent graduate student’s name through the mud, giving prospective and current graduate students reason to doubt Duke’s commitment to protecting its graduate students. Likewise, Hellinga’s peer scientists have good reason to doubt the credibility of his future research findings and, more importantly, the credibility of the University. Duke endorsed and rewarded that scientist’s efforts and now refuses to clarify whether research errors occurred.

For these groups to have their confidence restored in the University and its review processes, they need to know what Hellinga did wrong and what steps the University is taking to chastise the professor and prevent future misconduct.

Knowing that a review has been completed is not enough. As it stands, we have little reason to have faith in the purity of Duke’s review process. A recently released report on Duke’s review of Anil Potti’s research revealed that the Duke administrators decided not to pass on information about discrepancies between the raw data and the data Potti reported. A review of Hellinga’s conduct might be similarly flawed.

Protecting public confidence in the scientific process is vital. People rely on scientific conclusions to make critical decisions—whether or not to vaccinate their children; whether or not to turn conceptual research into a clinical trial. Individuals cannot evaluate this research on their own—they must make leaps of faith. Because they must place blind faith in the science, there is much at stake in protecting the integrity of the scientific process.

If Hellinga has done nothing wrong, he has nothing to lose from the release of a report that clears his name. If he has done something wrong or simply made an honest mistake, the University stands to gain the trust of many by admitting it.

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