Friday's Wall Street Journal has an extraordinary front-page story on the career of Sam Waksal, late of Imclone. If you haven't heard, it turns out that at every stage in his research career, these pesky. . .questions arose, bred by these nagging. . .doubts that what he was saying about his work was true.
The reporter, Geeta Anand, has obviously done a tremendous job on this one. You can't help but think that the folks at Bristol-Meyers Squibb found it pretty damn interesting. Here's the short history:
1974: post-doc at Stanford with Leonard Herzenberg. Asked to leave after a story about obtaining antibodies from another lab doesn't check out.
1975-1977: National Cancer Institute. Not offered a permanent position because of "disturbing patterns" in his research.
1977-1982: Tufts (Cancer Research Center.) Draws suspicion (results not backed up by actual research, trouble delivering actual data when backed to the wall on it.) Asked to leave.
1982-1985: Mt. Sinai. Asked to leave suddenly under circumstances which are still sealed. Rumors of falsified data.
1985: Founds Imclone.
Quite a trail. The article spends time trying to figure out how someone like this could go on from position to position without anyone ever putting a stop to him. A number of reasons are aired (potential legal action waiting if you trash someone in a recommendation, e.g.) - but there's another factor that I don't think is mentioned. That is, the desire to get someone the heck out of your lab.
And the best way to do that is provide them with a recommendation that'll get them employed somewhere else, where they can be somebody else's problem. I've seen this in action several times myself - grad students who went off to post-doc positions with everyone breathing a sigh of relief that they were finally out the door, post-docs hired in because everyone at their old lab was greasing the skids to shoot them out of the place.
And I've seen one or two people who were Waksal-ish, in a small-time way. I actually heard a "my NMR spectra were stolen" story - like someone needs a stack of NMRs. (You can tell that that one is from the days before digitized spectra, can't you?) And one post-doc I knew of spent some time on a large natural product project before floating off to another lab, leaving a pile of spectral data that the next guy had to sit down and figure out before he could get started. After going through the whole pile (two hours of stony silence, broken only by swishing paper,) this unlucky fellow looked up and said "This is not a very funny joke."
There has to be something more that we can do about such people. Any ideas?