Insights for Flourishing: Recent Assaults on Scientific Integrity

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Trust and accountability are integral to the research enterprise and the sharing of scientific information.  – American Association for the Advancement of Science

As a citizen scientist, I am angered, indeed I am appalled by the recent behavior of many leading American scientists. Situated in positions of authority, they flagrantly flaunt their power while abandoning the very core values and practices of science that undergird its integrity. In doing so, they hurt public trust in science during this time of crisis, and their actions contribute to the worsening of our wellbeing during the pandemic.

To illustrate what irks me so, I will describe recent actions by Drs. Francis Collins, Rita Colwell, and Charles Lieber. As background:

Dr. Collins was the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) until he stepped down from that position in December 2021;

Dr. Colwell was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1996, and from 1998 to 2004, she served as the first female director of the National Science Foundation;

Dr. Lieber served as Chair of Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology beginning in 2015.

First, Dr. Francis Collins.  Through a Freedom of Information Request, the following e-mail from Dr. Collins to Dr. Anthony Fauci and others at NIH recently has come to light.

Speaking about the Great Barrington Declaration, Dr. Collins writes: “This proposal from three fringe epidemiologists who met with the Secretary seems to be getting a lot of attention—and even a co-signature from Nobel Prize winner Mike Leavitt at Stanford.  There needs to be a quick and devastating published take down of its premises. I don’t see anything like that on line yet—is it underway?”

The three fringe epidemiologists Dr. Collins refers to are tenured professors at Oxford, Harvard, and Stanford Universities. They, along with more than 30 infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists, wished to express in a public way their “grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection.”

According to the authors’ website, “The Declaration was written from a global public health and humanitarian perspective, with special concerns about how the current COVID-19 strategies are forcing our children, the working class and the poor to carry the heaviest burden. The response to the pandemic in many countries around the world, focused on lockdowns, contact tracing and isolation, imposes enormous unnecessary health costs on people. In the long run, it will lead to higher Covid and non-Covid mortality than the focused protection plan we call for in the Declaration.”

As of the end of December, 2021, more than 15,000 medical and public health scientists, 45,000 medical practitioners, and 800,000 concerned citizens have endorsed it.

Some of the premises of the Declaration may be right, some may be wrong. But instead of inviting and promoting a lively, vigorous, public debate regarding how to protect the health and wellbeing of Americans, especially the most vulnerable amongst us, Dr. Collins directed Dr. Fauci and others at NIH to make sure the Declaration was quickly discredited with a “devastating published take down of its premises.”

This is not how science should be practiced. This is not how public health policy should be formulated. This is not how to foster trust among the public. This is simply horrible.

Now on to Dr. Rita Colwell. When the pandemic was in its infancy, Dr. Colwell along with more than two dozen other prominent public health scientists published a Letter in the prestigious and influential British medical journal The Lancet. Dr. Colwell and her co-authors wrote: “The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”

Their proposition is ludicrous. Do they truly believe that, if not for rumors, misinformation, and conspiracy theories, the Chinese Communist Party leadership would otherwise have gladly shared data about the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a “rapid, open, and transparent” way?  The Chinese government cover-up of what was going on at the Wuhan Institute of Virology began months before the world even knew a pandemic was heading our way. For example, in September, 2019, three months before China declared an outbreak of disease in Wuhan, the Institute’s database of thousands of viruses and genetic sequences was suddenly taken offline and has not seen the light of day since.

The Lancet Letter appeared at first to be a spontaneous outpouring of concern, but it was not.  Interviews and e-mail correspondence have revealed that Dr. Colwell’s colleague, EcoHealth Alliance President Dr. Peter Daszak, orchestrated the Letter to frame all hypotheses about a possible lab leak of SARS-CoV-2 as “crackpot theories.”

Despite tens of thousands of tests, no animal in the wild or in a wet market has been identified as a potential natural source of SARS-CoV-2.  Tragically, this Letter delayed, denigrated, and delegitimized valid inquiry by other scientists and the press into the possible laboratory origin of the virus.

All authors of The Lancet Letter declared no conflicts of interest. Are you kidding me! Consider this. EcoHealth Alliance, funded in part by NIH and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and in conjunction with Chinese scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, collected thousands of animal virus samples over a period of many years from throughout southeast Asia, brought them to Wuhan, isolated and genetically manipulated these viruses, and tested their virulence and transmissibility in humanized mice and cultured human lung tissue.

Dr. Daszak is president of EcoHealth Alliance and Dr. Colwell has served on its Board of Directors since 2012. Several other authors of the Letter also were directly associated with this non-profit. In my opinion, Dr. Daszak, Dr. Colwell, and other authors had a gigantic incentive to conceal any possibility that scientific research may have inadvertently unleashed this pandemic upon the world.

I greatly admire the trailblazing career of Dr. Colwell. As a Ph.D. graduate student in the 1970s, her name and mine appeared together in the first scientific paper I was ever associated with. Intellectual bullying and deliberate obfuscation by these scientists were personally painful to me.

Lastly, I turn to the federal indictment and recent felony conviction of Harvard chemistry professor Charles Lieber. In 2020, the Department of Justice indicted Dr. Lieber for not properly declaring that he was a “Strategic Scientist” at the Wuhan University of Technology and a contractual participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan (TTP). The TTP is a Chinese Communist Party initiative to engage the services of thousands of the world’s top scientists and engineers to help bring about their goal of making China the world’s leader in science and technology. The criminal complaint against Dr. Lieber included failing to report foreign bank accounts and personal income (allegedly $50K a month plus living expenses) he received from China. In a taped interview with federal investigators, Dr. Lieber reportedly admitted traveling back to the U.S. from Wuhan carrying bags stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars in cash.

In late December, 2021, following a six-day jury trial in Boston presided over by U.S. Senior District Court Judge Rya W. Zobel, Dr. Lieber was convicted of two counts of making false statements to federal authorities, two counts of making and subscribing a false income tax return, and two counts of failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts (FBAR) with the Internal Revenue Service.

As was the case in the two previous examples, integrity-sapping actions by Dr. Lieber were unopposed by many colleagues and peers. Prior to Dr. Lieber’s trial, dozens of America’s top scientists, including seven Nobel Laureates, published a public letter urging the Justice Department to drop the case. They wrote: “Despite his standing in the scientific community—or perhaps because of it—he has become the target of a tragically misguided government campaign that is discouraging U.S. scientists from collaborating with peers in other countries, particularly China. In so doing, it is threatening not only the United States’ position as a world leader in academic research, but science itself.”

What!? The opposite is true. What does threaten and undermine U.S. scientific preeminence is the lack of integrity and the betrayal of the public trust by prominent American scientists, compounded by deliberate efforts to thwart and evade accountability.

As we enter this new year, may we each resolve to strive for integrity and accountability in our own lives, and to demand the same from scientists in positions of power and authority. An alert, informed, and engaged citizenry will not only foster proper academic research, it will engender trust through accountability, and it will help ensure the full benefits of what science has to offer are developed and shared among its citizens. 

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