Inside a Corrupt Stem Cell Research Lab

The well-funded lab of stem cell researcher Piero Anversa has come under fire following the retraction of one of their papers on the regenerative properties of stem cells. Now, more of their research is under investigation. Over at Retraction Watch, one former lab worker speaks out about the atmosphere of "fear" and "secrecy" there.

Above all, scientific research is supposed to be conducted in a way that allows for the maximum accountability. When people make a discovery, it doesn't become "fact" until many other scientists reproduce their results and determine that it wasn't a fluke. To conduct scientific work in this way, researchers must be transparent, sharing data with colleagues, so that their work can be verified. Unfortunately neither accountability nor transparency were the rules in Anversa's lab.

This account of how the Anversa lab functioned, from an anonymous former lab worker, is intensely disturbing — especially given how many people gained false hope from media reports that Anversa's discoveries could lead to fast recovery from heart disease:

The day to day operation of the lab was conducted under a severe information embargo. The lab had Piero Anversa at the head with group leaders Annarosa Leri, Jan Kajstura and Marcello Rota immediately supervising experimentation. Below that was a group of around 25 instructors, research fellows, graduate students and technicians. Information flowed one way, which was up, and conversation between working groups was generally discouraged and often forbidden.

Raw data left one's hands, went to the immediate superior (one of the three named above) and the next time it was seen would be in a manuscript or grant. What happened to that data in the intervening period is unclear.

A side effect of this information embargo was the limitation of the average worker to determine what was really going on in a research project. It would also effectively limit the ability of an average worker to make allegations regarding specific data/experiments, a requirement for a formal investigation.

The general game plan of the lab was to use two methods to control the workforce: Reward those who would play along and create a general environment of fear for everyone else. The incentive was upward mobility within the lab should you stick to message. As ridiculous as it sounds to the average academic scientist, I was personally promised money and fame should I continue to perform the type of work they desired there. There was also the draw of financial security/job stability that comes with working in a very well-funded lab.

On the other hand, I am not overstating when I say that there was a pervasive feeling of fear in the laboratory. Although individually-tailored stated and unstated threats were present for lab members, the plight of many of us who were international fellows was especially harrowing. Many were technically and educationally underqualified compared to what might be considered average research fellows in the United States. Many also originated in Italy where Dr. Anversa continues to wield considerable influence over biomedical research.

This combination of being undesirable to many other labs should they leave their position due to lack of experience/training, dependent upon employment for U.S. visa status, and under constant threat of career suicide in your home country should you leave, was enough to make many people play along.

As the lab worker notes elsewhere in this account, the Anversa lab isn't the only place where science is done this way. I'm especially appalled by the way he abused international workers. This is an all-too-common strategy in the tech world as well, where many immigrant workers depend on their employers for their Visa status.

Read the rest at Retraction Watch