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Lab Times





A Few Months Ago…

…we received the following message:

Dear editors,

I remember the

Lab Times

covering the Silvia Bulfone-Paus case

a few years back. After retracting an enormous number of publica-

tions, I found her as a recent recipient of a grant by CRUK [Cancer

Research UK] that is intended to redirect immunologists toward the

Cancer Immunology field. I am upset and outraged that she receives

such a prestigious award that is given to only five people per year af-

ter retracting not less than 13 papers!

Flashback to 2010: Silvia Bulfone-Paus, an Italian immunolo-

gist working at the Research Center Borstel in Germany, was ac-

cused of scientific misconduct, image manipulations to be pre-

cise. Investigations immediately started and con-

firmed the allegations, putting the blame, how-

ever, not on her but on two postdocs in her lab,

Elena Bulanova and Vadim Budagian. In the end,

Bulfone-Paus had to retract 13 papers – includ-

ing, however, one that did not feature the two

fraud-indicted postdocs.

Although cleared of direct involvement with

the fraudulent actions in her lab, the DFG [Ger-

many’s largest funding agency], which had sup-

ported Bulfone-Paus’ work and had launched

its own inquiry, found her guilty of “gross neg-

ligence of her supervisory duty” as the group’s

leader. According to the DFG rules, this is syn-

onymous with scientific misconduct. As a pun-

ishment for her offence, the DFG issued a writ-

ten reprimand and banned her from submitting

funding proposals for three years. In addition,

Bulfone-Paus was excluded from statutory bod-

ies at the DFG and suspended as a reviewer, also

for three years.

DFG Secretary General, Dorothee Dzwonnek said, at the time,

“These measures represent a suitable and appropriate means

of reprimanding Ms. Bulfone-Paus for the sustained neglect of

her supervisory responsibility towards the early career research-

ers. As an experienced researcher, Ms. Bulfone-Paus did not fulfil

the essential function of providing a good role model for her col-


Some say, she got off with nothing but a slap on the wrist but,

be that as it may, three years have since passed, Bulfone-Paus,

now full-time at the University of Manchester, has sat-out her

time. The University of Manchester, by the way, took a somewhat

broader view of the scientist’s misdemeanours. According to a re-

port by

Times Higher Education

, a spokesperson for the Universi-

ty said, “There was insufficient substance to the allegations or, in

some cases, they were adequately explained by professors Paus

[her husband and collaborator] and Bulfone-Paus.” Currently,

the immunologist wants to understand “the mechanisms and re-

quirements for selective secretion of mast cell mediators, so as to

control mast activation in pathological conditions”.

For her project “Modulation of tissue mast cell reactivity in

the control of tumour progression”, Bulfone-Paus applied for

funding to Cancer Research UK and was, earlier this year, award-

ed the Cancer Immunology Project Award, which comes with up

to £300k for up to 36 months. A lucrative award, indeed. When

Lab Times

contacted Cancer Research UK, we received no answer

about the reasons for granting the award to Bulfone-Paus.

But it’s obvious and very understandable that colleagues, who

perhaps have attended to their supervising duties passionate-

ly and conscientiously for many years, are frustrated. How can a

funding agency prefer a researcher, who demonstrably violated

good scientific behaviour?

Although it’s fairly easy to bypass a penalty like a funding

ban, by simply applying to another funding agency, in a differ-

ent country; Bulfone-Paus, however, got her punishment and ac-

cepted it. Still, it seems, colleagues are upset when a “previous-

ly convicted” scientist continues doing research. Is a funding ban

for three years, in cases of “negligence of supervising duties” not

sufficient enough? What then is the proper punishment? And if

it is so hard to find the rightful punishment in these more or less

“light” cases, how about the real criminal acts, when data is delib-

erately forged?

Perhaps the solution is not to punish the “bad” researchers

but to reward the “good” ones. How about that as an incentive?


/George Hodan