The story "above the fold" on The Washington Post's front page on 12 March could have come from a thriller. Intrigue. Possible fraud. Millions of government dollars possibly at stake. A struggle between two colleagues. One man dead. Another with a possibly lethally damaged career.
The tale, sadly, is completely real, and it plays out not between secret agents but between former laboratory colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore. It includes the death in August, apparently by his own hand, of Yu-yi Lin, a researcher who appeared to be on the brink of a promising career as an independent investigator. After graduate school and a postdoc at Hopkins, Lin had just established his own lab as an assistant professor at National Taiwan University in his native country. He was first author of a highly cited paper recently published in Nature based on the work he had done in Baltimore.
But while Lin was still at Hopkins, a second researcher also working in the same lab, Daniel Yuan, a Hopkins medical graduate who had opted for basic research over clinical practice, had questioned Lin's statistics and eventually brought his doubts to Nature, which made noises about possibly printing a correction. But I’ll let you find out the rest of this tangled affair from Post reporter Peter Whoriskey.
The explanation of the science that Lin and Yuan were wrangling over is rather murky in this account. According to a Johns Hopkins news release, it involves mechanisms of regulating energy storage within cells. But exactly what the researchers found or didn't find is secondary to the article's real point: the human cost that high-stakes science can exact in today's brutally competitive funding environment.
With fewer than one in five proposals to the National Institutes of Health winning funding these days, pressure on scientists to produce impressive results that will bring in grants or renewals has never been greater, making publication of a well-regarded article in a prestigious journal a coup for a rising researcher like Lin. As Whoriskey notes, one result of this pressure appears to be a sharp rise in retractions, a large majority of them because of misconduct. With grants and careers on the line, Ferric C. Fang of the University of Washington, Seattle, who has studied scientific misconduct, says in the Post article that ambitious people may "have this tempting thought: If only the data points would line up … ."
Whether Lin did anything wrong is as yet unknown and may never be known. It seems clear, however, that Yuan has paid a high price for defending what he viewed as doing careful science. While at Hopkins, Yuan was demoted from the position of research associate apparently to postdoctoral fellow, the Post reports. Then, he says, he was fired, and has been unable to find research work since.