Faking It: How an "Expert" on Women's Health Made it All Up

By Christine Cupaiuolo — October 24, 2006

Dr. Eric Poehlman, a former University of Vermont professor, is currently serving a year in prison for what The New York Times Magazine calls “one of the most expansive cases of scientific fraud in U.S. history.”

For years, the world-renowned researcher on topics such as obesity and menopause denied allegations that he had fabricated research and data. The multi-year investigation, initiated by a young lab technician who had considered Poehlman his mentor, involved the University of Vermont, the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Office of Research Integrity and the U.S. Department of Justice.

“The revelations,” writes Jeneen Interlandi, “led to the retraction or correction of 10 scientific papers, and Poehlman was banned forever from receiving public research money.”

Poehlman is the first scientist sentenced to prison for fabricating data. It’s a rather fascinating story that raises serious questions about issues of trust and the integrity of science. For those who are concerned with women’s health, it also means, once again, a re-evaluation of the accepted truths.

While flags have been raised in recent years about drug companies funding research through private, for-profit companies, government-funded research carried out at academic institutions is generally considered more protected by checks and balances. And those checks and balances did work in Poehlman’s case — eventually.

But as Sally Jean Rockey of the National Institute of Health said in a statement to the court on behalf of the NIH, “Science is incremental … When there’s a break in the chain, all the links that follow that break can be compromised.”

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