In what prosecutors say is the first criminal conviction of a federally funded researcher on charges of scientific fraud, a prominent researcher in the field of mental retardation pleaded guilty Monday in Baltimore to falsifying scientific data.
Stephen Breuning, a 36-year-old psychologist and expert in drug treatment for hyperactive mentally retarded children, pleaded guilty in federal court in Baltimore to charges of making false statements to a federal agency funding his research.
The conviction was hailed by law enforcement officials and others as one step toward stemming what some believe is a rising tide of research fraud--an apparent increase that has prompted Congressional concern and the proposing of new federal rules.
“This should be a warning to other people who have those proclivities,” said Robert L. Sprague, a former colleague of Breuning who first reported the alleged fraud. “It has to be that way when we’re dealing (in biomedical research) with people’s lives.”
The case stemmed from work done by Breuning in the early 1980s at the University of Pittsburgh involving the stimulants Ritalin and Dexadrine--two drugs Breuning claimed were more effective than traditional treatments in controlling hyperactivity in the retarded.
Traditionally, physicians have prescribed anti-psychotic drugs, or neuroleptics, to control the aggressiveness of the institutionalized mentally retarded. Breuning believed the stimulants were as effective and had fewer side-effects--a view Sprague said has since been discredited.
Ritalin, which has been prescribed for several decades, is now the drug of choice for non-retarded hyperactive children with attention-deficit disorder, according to its manufacturer, Ciba-Geigy Corp.
Sprague, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and a collaborator with Breuning, began to suspect in late 1983 that Breuning was exaggerating the numbers of children he had treated with the drugs.
Sprague notified the National Institute of Mental Health, which had granted Breuning more than $160,000. An institute panel concluded last May that Breuning “knowingly, willfully and repeatedly engaged in misleading and deceptive practices in reporting results of research.”
The panel also noted that Breuning’s allegedly tainted work had “a significant impact” on the field of drug treatment for hyperactivity in mentally retarded children, even shaping some states’ public policies on treating the mentally retarded.
“This is a very vulnerable population, with a high use of medication,” said Sprague, stressing the dangers of switching the medication of many of the thousands of children who he said are on neuroleptics. “So any false information has a tremendous impact.”
The institute referred the case to the inspector general of its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. That office conducted its own investigation for evidence of criminal conduct and turned the case over to the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland.
Richard Kusserow, the inspector general, said Monday that the case warranted criminal prosecution because it was “egregious.” Among other things, he said, Breuning’s actions could cause widespread harm to mentally retarded children by altering their medication.
Kusserow complained that there is no single federal mechanism for investigating reports of scientific misconduct. The responsibility, he said, should be placed with an office of professional investigators, rather than the current collection of lay people and panels.
“The only way I get involved is if there is evidence of a criminal violation,” Kusserow said. “Very rarely does it appear to be a criminal violation in the minds of those reviewing (cases like this one).”
Breuning could not be reached Monday for comment. His lawyer, Charles Lazar, said he could not comment on the case. He said Breuning, who until his indictment in April worked at the Polk Center in Polk, Pa., is not currently working in clinical psychology.
Obstruction Charge Dropped
Under the terms of Breuning’s plea-bargain, the U.S. attorney’s office dropped a charge of obstructing a government investigation. That charge stemmed from allegedly misleading statements Breuning made to the National Institute of Mental Health panel that investigated his case.
Breuning, scheduled for sentencing Nov. 10, faces up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine on each of the two counts of making false statements on grant documents. The prosecutor intends to ask that Breuning be barred from receiving federal grant money for 10 years.
The case, the prosecutor said in an interview, should act as a deterrent to others.
“Some of these researchers don’t realize the ramifications of what they’re doing,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. E. Thomas Roberts. “Now that they are aware they can be prosecuted criminally and face going to jail, hopefully they will be a little more reluctant.”
At least one scientist, however, was pessimistic about any long-term effect.
“I see fraud in science as simply a reflection of society at large,” said Irving Maltzman, a professor of psychology at UCLA. “We’ve seen fraud on Wall Street, fraud in government. Fraud in science is just part of the same syndrome.”