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Star marine ecologist committed misconduct, university says

excalibur

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She fed the BS that CO2 was going to acidify the oceans. And yeah, 'science' bought into it.



A major controversy in marine biology took a new twist last week when the University of Delaware (UD) found one of its star scientists guilty of research misconduct. The university has confirmed to Science that it has accepted an investigative panel’s conclusion that marine ecologist Danielle Dixson committed fabrication and falsification in work on fish behavior and coral reefs. The university is seeking the retraction of three of Dixson’s papers and “has notified the appropriate federal agencies,” a spokesperson says.

Among the papers is a study about coral reef recovery that Dixson published in Science in 2014, and for which the journal issued an Editorial Expression of Concern in February. Science—whose News and Editorial teams operate independently of each other—retracted that paper today.

The investigative panel’s draft report, which Science’s News team has seen in heavily redacted form, paints a damning picture of Dixson’s scientific work, which included many studies that appeared to show Earth’s rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels can have dramatic effects on fish behavior and ecology. “The Committee was repeatedly struck by a serial pattern of sloppiness, poor recordkeeping, copying and pasting within spreadsheets, errors within many papers under investigation, and deviation from established animal ethics protocols,” wrote the panel, made up of three UD researchers.

Dixson did not respond to requests for comment. She “adamantly denies any and all allegations of wrongdoing, and will vigorously appeal any finding of research misconduct,” Dixson’s lawyer, Kristina Larsen, wrote in an email to Science. Larsen describes Dixson as a “brilliant, hardworking female scientist” who was “targeted” by a group of scientists who “chose to ‘convict’ Dr. Dixson in the court of public opinion” by sharing their accusations with a Science reporter last year. “Their vigilante approach all but assured Dr. Dixson would never be able to receive a fair and impartial review elsewhere,” Larsen writes. UD says it will not comment on Dixson’s future there.

The accusations against Dixson have sharply divided marine ecologists, with some scientists suggesting the whistleblowers acted out of professional envy or to advance their own careers. The accusations were “stalking and harassment” and “one of the most disgusting and shameful things I‘ve ever seen in science,” John Bruno, a marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, tweeted in March. (Bruno—who wrote a commentary accompanying Dixson’s 2014 Science paper—did not respond to an email informing him of UD’s findings.)

UD “did a decent investigation. I think it's one of the first universities that we've seen actually do that,” says ecophysiologist Fredrik Jutfelt of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, one of the whistleblowers. “So that’s really encouraging.” But he and others in the group are disappointed that the committee appears to have looked at only seven of the 20 Dixson papers they had flagged as suspicious. They also had hoped UD would release the committee’s final report and detail any sanctions against Dixson. “That is a shame,” Jutfelt says.


Pioneering research​


Dixson is known as a highly successful scientist and fundraiser. She obtained her Ph.D. at James Cook University (JCU), Townsville in Australia, in 2012; worked as a postdoc and assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology for 4 years; and in 2015 started her own group at UD’s marine biology lab in Lewes, a small town on the Atlantic Coast. She received a $1.05 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in 2016 and currently has a $750,000 career grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). She presented her research at a 2015 White House meeting and has often been featured in the media, including in a 2019 story in Science.

Together with one of her Ph.D. supervisors, JCU marine biologist Philip Munday, Dixson pioneered research into the effects on fish of rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which cause the oceans to acidify. In a series of studies published since 2009 they showed that acidification can disorient fish, lead them to swim toward chemical cues emitted by their predators, and affect their hearing and vision. Dixson’s later work focused on coral reef ecology, the subject of her Science paper.

The whistleblowers, an international team of academic researchers in marine biology, had long questioned the very big effect sizes and unusually small variances in data reported by the pair. In a 2020 Nature paper, the whistleblowers reported they could not reproduce several of the claims in their own studies. Later that year, four of them decided to ask for a misconduct investigation into the work, as Science reported. They directed the request at three funding agencies that had backed studies by Munday and Dixson, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health and NSF, but those agencies apparently asked UD and Georgia Tech to investigate.

In its undated draft report, UD’s 3-person investigative committee concludes Dixson simply did not have enough time to collect the vast amount of data described in the 2014 Science paper, co-authored with Georgia Tech marine ecologist Mark Hay. It purported to show that overfished, seaweed-covered reefs in Fiji fail to attract juvenile individuals of 15 fish and three coral species.

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