Leading scientist suspended amid ‘research misconduct’ investigation – from Scotland on Sunday
One of Scotland’s most decorated young scientists is under investigation for misconduct amid allegations he falsified and duplicated crucial research, a Scotland on Sunday investigation can reveal.
Dr Robert Ryan, who has received nearly £1.1m in grants for his pioneering work in molecular bacteriology, has been suspended from his senior post at the University of Dundee.
The allegations are a blow not only to the credibility of the university – a world leader in life sciences – but institutions around the world with whom Ryan collaborated.
The award-winning Wellcome Trust senior research fellow is at the forefront of global research which could lead to new treatments for cystic fibrosis and has received extensive public funding.
But it is alleged he used identical images across multiple papers, claiming they were different strains. In some cases, it is alleged the evidence was flipped or rotated, which could indicate an “intent to deceive”, according to one source.
The extent of the alleged misconduct is unclear, but the source indicated it is alleged to have spanned “a number of years” and involved numerous prestigious journals.
As the author or co-author of 28 published papers, Ryan is regarded as one of Europe’s outstanding young microbiologists, having won a clutch of awards including the coveted Fleming Prize.
He is a principal investigator at the university’s division of molecular microbiology, where he oversees a nine-strong research laboratory, but it is understood his research group has been dissolved, with PhD students and staff scientists reallocated elsewhere. A formal investigation led by university vice-principals is ongoing.
The source said: “This is a huge development for the scientific community and his field.”
Ryan’s field of work is highly specialised but seen as essential in efforts to develop potential treatments for diseases such as cystic fibrosis. He specialises in understanding the signalling processes that occur within and between pathogenic bacteria during chronic infections.
The area of research is key to improving the treatment of bacterial infections due to the global rise of antibiotic resistance.
Since moving to Dundee from University College Cork in February 2013, he has won several high profile prizes. They include the Society for General Microbiology’s Fleming Prize, awarded annually to recognise “outstanding research” by a microbiologist in the early stages of his or her career; the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Patrick Neill medal, given to emerging researchers who have demonstrated “outstanding ability”, and the Society for Applied Microbiology’s WH Pierce Prize, awarded to microbiologists under the age of 40 who has made a substantial contribution.
Last October, meanwhile, he was recognised as one of the rising stars of his field after being accepted into the coveted Young Investigators network of the European Molecular Biology Organisation.
In addition to the prizes, Ryan has received considerable research grants over the years to support his work.
In 2014, he was awarded a Lister Institute Research Prize Fellowship, which seeks to nurture future leaders of biomedical research. It included £200,000 to support Ryan’s research over a five-year period.
Other support has included: a £320,000 CFMATTERS grant for research into cystic fibrosis; a Leverhulme Trust Network Grant of £125,000 to support a research programme aimed at understanding the role that bacterial cell-to-cell signalling plays in various polymicrobial diseases; and grants totalling £415,000 from Science Foundation Ireland, a statutory body based in Dublin.
According to the University of Dundee’s website, the sum received by Ryan in the form of grants is even higher. It cites the CFMATTERS award was for £900,000.
A source said: “Big grants like this make careers – if he’s got them dishonestly over someone else, that’s an issue.
“Also, PhD students and post-doctoral researchers elsewhere might be wasting time doing experiments that will never work if his papers are dodgy.”
In a statement, the University of Dundee said: “There is an ongoing investigation into an allegation of research misconduct. In order not to prejudice in any way the outcome of that investigation, we are unable to comment further on it at this time.
“The university has clear policies relating to research misconduct, and any such allegations are thoroughly investigated.”
It added that a member of staff has been suspended pending the investigation being completed.
A spokeswoman for University College Cork (UCC) said: “UCC understands that there has been an allegation of research misconduct in relation to a member of staff at the University of Dundee.
“UCC does not comment on the staff or internal processes of other institutions. Should any action be warranted by UCC in due course, UCC will follow up at that point.”
A spokeswoman for the Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest medical research charity, said: “Wellcome takes allegations of research misconduct seriously. We expect institutions to investigate any allegation of misconduct, as the University of Dundee are doing in this case, and we would consider taking action only if allegations are upheld.
“As the university’s investigation is ongoing we are unable to comment further.”
Professor Barry Plant, the co-ordinator of CFMATTERS, an EU-funded cystic fibrosis research consortium of universities, hospitals and businesses, said: “I can confirm that CFMATTERS is aware of his suspension. Any potential decisions regarding the project and Dr Ryan will be made in close collaboration with the EU Commission funders once the Dundee investigation is completed.”
Kate Law, director of the Lister Institute, said: “We are aware of these allegations and are confident that the university is carrying out a full and fair investigation. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”
No-one from the Leverhulme Trust was available for comment.
Ryan was not available for comment.