A researcher well known for his studies on women, menopause, aging and body weight fabricated data for more than a decade, falsified applications for federal grants and tried to cover up his misconduct, federal officials announced yesterday.
Eric T. Poehlman, who had been a tenured research professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, has agreed to plead guilty to civil, criminal and administrative charges and pay $196,000 in fines and attorneys' fees, the officials said.
Poehlman also has been barred for life from seeking or receiving any federal funding or participating in federal health programs, and he will issue at least 10 retractions and corrections to papers he published in scientific journals, officials said.
No one is believed to have been harmed by Poehlman's misconduct, because it focused on basic physiology, but the case is significant because of the lengthy misconduct and the prominence of the research, officials said.
"It's probably one of the biggest cases we've had," said Chris Pascal, director of the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), one of several federal agencies that investigated the case. "No one was harmed, but this was important research, and whenever there's a case of this magnitude it does great harm by undermining public trust."
Authorities began to probe Poehlman's work in 2000 after a research assistant alerted officials at the University of Vermont. Subsequent investigations were launched by the U.S. attorney's office for Vermont, the Department of Health and Human Services, and ORI.
"[A]cademic researchers will be held fully accountable for fraud and scientific misconduct," U.S. Attorney David V. Kirby said in a statement. "Dr. Poehlman fraudulently diverted millions of dollars . . . to support his research projects. This in turn siphoned millions of dollars from the pool of resources for valid scientific proposals."
Poehlman was accused of using fraudulent data to apply for about $11.6 million in federal funding between 1992 and 2002, and he ultimately received about $2.9 million.
The misconduct cited included falsifying data in a 1995 article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine from the Longitudinal Menopause Study, which was supposed to test 35 healthy women for metabolic changes over time; lying about the number of subjects he tested in another study, the Longitudinal Study of Aging; destroying electronic evidence of his falsifications and fabrications and lying to investigators.
Poehlman faces up to five years in prison on a criminal charge of making false statements in a grant application in April 1999, but the government "has agreed to take no position" on Poehlman's request for a more lenient sentence "based on his cooperation with authorities and his acceptance of responsibility," the statement said.
Poehlman, who also worked at the University of Maryland at Baltimore from 1993 to 1996, left the University of Vermont in 2001 to work at the University of Montreal. He resigned that post in January, officials said. Neither Poehlman nor his attorney could be reached yesterday for comment.
Judy Salerno, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging, called the revelations "shocking" because Poehlman's research had helped inspire many other researchers' work. "I think each scientist will now have to look at their own data in view of what we now know about this deception," she said.