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The Daily Need

Harvard acknowledges review of prominent scientist’s work

Harvard University is known for the lumbering pace at which it investigates its own faculty members. As Edward Tenner at The Atlantic points out, officials at Harvard’s medical school have amended the conflict-of-interest policies there, but still refuse even to acknowledge an ongoing investigation into alleged improprieties among some of the school’s faculty members.

The university’s reluctance to disclose even the slightest details of its faculty investigations has understandably ruffled some feathers this week, as revelations continue to surface regarding the work of one of Harvard’s most prominent biologists, a leader in the ever-expanding field of evolutionary psychology. The Boston Globe disclosed this week that Marc Hauser, author of several bestselling books on the nature of human morality, has been under investigation for nearly three years, following allegations of scientific misconduct in his lab.

Today, in response to the furor, Harvard said it had taken steps to correct at least three previously published journal articles by Hauser. The university also issued a statement acknowledging the investigation, but said it would defer to the government on whether to disclose details of the review, given that much of Hauser’s research was funded with public money:

In these types of cases, Harvard follows federal requirements for investigating alleged research misconduct and reports its findings, as required, to the appropriate federal funding agencies, which conduct their own review. At the conclusion of the federal investigatory process, in cases where the government concludes scientific misconduct occurred, the federal agency makes those findings publicly available.

That explanation has failed to satisfy many of Hauser’s colleagues in the fields of biology and evolutionary psychology, who say the investigation has perhaps clouded Hauser’s entire body of work, much of which has formed the foundation for modern research into animal cognition and the evolution of moral instincts. “It’s important that Harvard release the data that they questioned, because otherwise you don’t know what to believe,” Herbert Terrace, a specialist in primate cognition at Columbia University, told The New Scientist.

In the absence of more detail from Harvard, speculation about the scope of Hauser’s indiscretions has run rampant. Hauser has been criticized in the past for drawing conclusions that are not necessarily supported by the data contained in his research — a sin, perhaps, but certainly not an uncommon one for those seeking book contracts and government funding. But The New Scientist reports that Hauser’s mistakes may go even further, into the realm of data falsification. If true, Hauser’s broader work would likely be discredited, or at least called into question.

For it’s part, the journal Cognition has already retracted one of Hauser’s papers, published in 2002, regarding the rule-learning capability of cotton-top tamarin monkeys. According to Ivan Oransky of the Retraction Watch blog, the journal wrote in its retraction that an internal review of the paper “found that the data do not support the reported findings,” and that the author, Hauser, “accepts responsibility for the error.”