Prominent Physicist, Accused of Fraud, Is Fired From Lawrence Berkeley National lab
[The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 July 2002]
Bay Area papers can't find a reclusive scientist. Guess who can
By RICHARD MORGAN
Victor Ninov, a prominent nuclear physicist, has been fired from the University of California-managed Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory amid allegations that he committed extensive scientific fraud. Although Mr. Ninov was fired in May, the lab reportedly chose not to publicize the in-house trouble because it is part of continuing "personnel actions."
Mr. Ninov was the primary author among 15 contributors to a 1999 research paper that heralded the surprise simultaneous discovery of two new elements, numbered "118" and "116." When the production of 118 and 116 could not be replicated by other laboratories or Lawrence Berkeley's own scientists, the laboratory retracted the data. An internal investigation was then conducted to evaluate whether the 118 data were fabricated, and Mr. Ninov was fired in May. He has filed a grievance with the lab.
A spokesman for the lab, Ronald R. Kolb, did not return calls Sunday for comment. He told the San Francisco Chronicle, however, that the alleged fraud was not publicized because Charles V. Shank, the lab's director, wanted "to balance the importance of getting a very strong statement to the lab community about the importance of integrity and, at the same time, not to jeopardize the personnel actions that are continuing."
Reached at his home in California on Sunday, Mr. Ninov confirmed that he had been fired but defended the integrity of his research. He dismissed the allegations and his firing as "lab politics" and said he was "a scapegoat and sacrificial lamb."
All of the researchers -- except Mr. Ninov -- involved in the alleged discovery of 118 and 116 wrote a brief retraction that appears in today's issue of the journal Physics Review Letters.
The incident is the latest in a string of embarrassments for the lab. In 1999, the Office of Research Integrity, a federal oversight agency, found that Robert P. Liburdy, another Lawrence Berkeley scientist, was guilty of scientific misconduct in his research on the effects of magnetic fields on living cells.
One of the researchers on the 118 team, Walter Loveland, a chemistry professor at Oregon State University who was on sabbatical at Lawrence Berkeley when the purported discovery was announced, in 1999, said in an interview Sunday that "as things have unraveled and come to light, there's a significant disappointment," adding that the charges of fraud are "a severe blow" to the lab.
Mr. Loveland said that, despite the complexity of the science involved, it is "not so difficult" to falsify data. "Once in a great while, once in -- I should say -- an extremely rare occasion, [fraud is] dealt with, and that's what's happened here," he said. Although he stressed his "outsider" relationship to Lawrence Berkeley, Mr. Loveland said that the lab's reaction "was straightforward and prompt."
"There's no cover-up at all," he said. "And that's all you can ask for." He added that Mr. Ninov is still an "extremely talented individual" who deserves the "highest respect."
Mr. Ninov attributed the dispute to what he called "gambling physics -- you can win the first time and then try and try and try again and never win anything." The science involved in the search for new elements is limited, he said, and "we're at the limit" of what is possible in the search for elements 118 and 116. His discovery, he said, was "partially luck."
Mr. Ninov, who was also part of research teams that discovered three other elements, explained that the science used in the discovery of new elements depends on taking the product of radioactive decay and then working backward to analyze what the original material was. "You have to begin building [the data] from something that is known," he said.
All radioactive elements decay into more-stable elements. Usually, a new element will decay into a known element, but 118, Mr. Ninov said, decays into 116, a second new element. However, a scientific reading of the number of protons, the identifier for new elements, "is not possible" when a new element decays into any unknown material, Mr. Ninov said. He added that the discovery of 118 resulted from "theoretical extrapolations and the most probable candidates" but not scientific fraud.
Mr. Ninov conceded that the allegations alone have brought "big damage in my reputation, if not the end of my career." He said that he had received support and encouragement from scientists in the United States and Europe, and said of his relationship with the Lawrence Berkeley lab, "At the moment, I'm just bitter and angry," but "maybe I'll laugh about this someday."
back to home page