Friday, March 30, 2007

Enstrom Cleared of Scientific Misconduct Charges; American Cancer Society Owes Him An Apology

After an internal investigation, the University of California has cleared UCLA professor and epidemiologist Dr. James Enstrom of all charges of scientific misconduct - charges that were leveled by the American Cancer Society.

According to an article in a recent issue of Nature, the American Cancer Society (ACS) had accused Dr. Enstrom of scientific misconduct in his role in a 2003 British Medical Journal study which questioned the link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer among nonsmokers.

That article - which used data from the ACS Cancer Prevention Study and found no significant increase in lung cancer risk associated with exposure to spousal smoking - has received massive publicity, serving as the focal point for a campaign to eliminate tobacco industry funding of research at the University of California.

According to the article, the accusation from the ACS prompted an internal University investigation to determine whether any scientific misconduct occurred:

"The latest round of debate began last autumn when the chief executive of the American Cancer Society, John Seffrin, wrote a letter to the University of California's board of regents arguing that tobacco funding should be banned. In the 12 October letter, Seffrin argued that tobacco-funded front groups "publicized misleading results" while giving "the false implication" that the society had endorsed the study. He cited Enstrom's BMJ article in particular, alleging that Enstrom "ignored" complaints of "fundamental methodological problems". ... Wyatt Hume, provost at the University of California's president's office, wrote to Seffrin saying that the university "takes allegations of scientific misconduct extremely seriously". If there is "specific information in support of an allegation of scientific misconduct against Enstrom", he wrote, he would relay it to officials at the Los Angeles campus so that they "can pursue the matter further". Shortly after, officials at the cancer society sent a seven-page list of what they cited as issues with the BMJ article."

Both authors of the study -- Dr. Enstrom and Dr. Geoffrey Kabat, formerly of SUNY Stony Brook, vehemently denied any scientific misconduct:

"In an interview, Enstrom acknowledged receiving the various letters and corresponding with the University of California's authorities. "I am working on this with regents' approval," he said. "I am being allowed to defend myself by the appropriate people." He "absolutely" denies any misconduct in the study. And Kabat objects to the university's regent policies being based "on allegations motivated by a political agenda and unsupported by any facts"."

The internal investigation failed to find any evidence of scientific misconduct. Dr. Enstrom was officially cleared in a March 22 letter from UC Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic and Health Affairs Wyatt R. Hume, who wrote:

"Chancellor Abrams initiated a thorough review of the materials forwarded by Dr. Thun. He asked two senior campus officials, both of them scientists, to independently review the materials. Both officials independently reached the conclusion that these materials provide no evidence of scientific misconduct."

"The materials Dr. Thun provided reflect the robust debate in the scientific literature about the research methodologies used by Dr. Enstrom in conducting the work that was the basis for the 2003 article published in the British Medical Journal. Disagreements regarding research methodology, and disputes about the soundness of scientific conclusions do not, however, constitute scientific misconduct. There is room for vehement and heartfelt disagreement about the soundness of particular scientific analysis and conclusions, and the scientific and academic community has well-established mechanisms for judging which results are ultimately deemed to withstand lose and sustained scientific scrutiny."

The Rest of the Story

As I stated in my commentary on this issue, the presence of deficiencies in research (taking the ACS position to be true) and the publication of results that do not accord with the views of others does not represent scientific misconduct. Taking money from the tobacco companies is not scientific misconduct. While the ACS has every right to criticize the methodology of the study and dispute its findings and conclusions, it is inappropriate to attack the researcher - and to charge him with scientific misconduct - rather than to focus on the research.

In this case, there was no scientific misconduct. Since Dr. Enstrom has now been cleared of these charges, I believe that the American Cancer Society owes him an apology.

In the academic community, scientific misconduct charges are taken very seriously and these charges could literally ruin someone's career. Thus, if a group ends up falsely bringing scientific misconduct charges against a researcher, they certainly owe him an apology for making what turns out to be false charges that could have ruined his career.

What the American Cancer Society has done amounts to character assassination. If they want to criticize the research itself, point out methodologic flaws, or attack the tobacco companies for using this kind of research in a campaign to undermine public health messages about the harms of smoking or secondhand smoke, then that's fine. They have every right to do that. But to issue the attack on the individual researcher and attempt to denigrate the character of that individual by making what amount to false allegations of scientific misconduct is not appropriate.

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