Fraud in science: A just released investigation has found that one of Germany’s most cited psychologists fabricated data in a government-financed study.
Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, one of Germany’s top psychologists and an expert in treating anxiety and phobias, is not shy about promoting himself. His email signature says he is a “highly cited researcher,” and with good reason. He has almost 1000 articles to his name, according to the Web of Science, and has racked up nearly 70,000 citations. He is an editor of Germany’s diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders—the bible of clinical psychology—and until 2017, he led a psychology research institute at the Dresden University of Technology (TU Dresden).
Yet his reputation is under fire after an investigation into one of his studies found evidence of manipulation—and elaborate efforts to cover up the misdeed. The investigation report, turned over to TU Dresden in February and obtained by Science, also shows Wittchen intimidated whistleblowers and pressured senior TU Dresden staff. The Federal Joint Committee (G-BA), a public health organization, is suing the company it paid to do the study. And the Dresden public prosecutor’s office is now investigating criminal charges related to the study.
Apparently the study only surveyed about 75% clinics on its list, and then simply copied data to complete the survey for the other clinics. Then Wittchen made veiled threats to investigators, manipulated documents to hide what had been done, and even tried to get two whistle-blowers fired, accusing them of doing the misdeeds.
This report illustrates a reality that few are willing to recognize. The science field is rife with corruption in the areas where government funds and government-employed scientists converge. The dishonest scientists are likely a very tiny minority, but they are often the ones who have pushed their way up to the most powerful posts, not by doing science but by playing the politics required to gain power. The result is that the science coming from the government institutions they run is now frequently suspect.
We have seen this in the past year in the world’s health agencies worldwide. Their leaders have repeatedly made statements concerning COVID-19 that simply have no backing in research, have no consistency, are repeatedly contradictory, and seem based on politics rather than data. This same problem has also exhibited itself for decades in the climate field, as well as many other sociological and medical fields.
The only long term solution that will really work would be to separate government from science, a goal that is likely unrealistic. At a minimum at least we should be trying to shift the government research money so that it goes to independent private companies on a case-by-case basis, rather than permanent government agencies that are run by the government.