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Watchdog group calls for federal investigation of UW regarding research misconduct

Courtesy of Mood Media

An animal advocacy group has filed a pair of complaints about research misconduct at the University of Wyoming (UW).

Last year, UW requested the retraction of 33 papers authored by one of its former faculty members. UW found the researcher, Jun Ren, guilty of research misconduct for experiments going back more than a decade.

But watchdog groups say the university didn't act fast enough to identify and address the problem. They allege that the university didn't want to compromise the massive amounts of federal funding Ren brought to the university — which could have been as much as $2 million a year. Ren left UW in 2020, so the call for retractions came only after he was no longer doing research or scoring funding for the university.

The research misconduct has attracted the attention of the watchdog group Retraction Watch, and subsequently the group Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN), which focuses on animal studies and frequently challenges the inappropriate use of animals in university research.

SAEN Director Michael Budkie said the public has a right to know more about what happened at UW.

"This is obviously a huge scandal because this is dozens of publications which were made over a long period of time and which involve millions of dollars in federal funding," he said. "And we are concerned that this delay may have been caused by their own financial interest."

SAEN has filed two complaints with the federal Office of Research Integrity, asking them to issue their own finding about the misconduct — and to investigate why the university took so long to reach that same conclusion.

An investigation by the Office of Research Integrity could impact UW's ability to access federal research funding in the future.

But Budkie said there ought to be accountability not just for the researcher, but for the institution that empowered him.

Ren's work was cited frequently by others in his field of heart health and diabetes, meaning that the influence of his misconduct likely spreads far beyond the 33 papers he personally had a hand in.

"When scientific articles are published, they go out into the realm where other scientists look at them, read them, and potentially use them as the basis of their own research," Budkie said. "(One) article, which was left in the system for 15 years, was cited by at least 29 other authors. It could potentially have invalidated the work of all of these other authors — and who knows who cited their publications?"

Ren’s research used and killed animals as part of the experimentation. Budkie, and his organization SAEN, take issue with the widespread use of animals in research laboratories.

"For publications like this, animals are killed," Budkie said. "And attempting to generalize from non-human animals to human beings is questionable at best, because let's face it, mice and rats, the two most frequently used species of animals in laboratories, are not just human beings in little fur coats. Their anatomy, their physiology, everything about them is different."

The usefulness or ethics of using animals in the lab is an area of ongoing debate among animal advocates, philosophers and scientists. Some argue that such experiments are essential to understanding biology and disease while some research casts doubt on that assertion. For centuries, some philosophers have argued that non-human animals do not experience pain and suffering in a way meaningfully similar to humans, but others have argued they do and that this pain and suffering should be weighed against their usefulness or lack thereof in experiments.

UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said the university has no comment on SAEN's two filed complaints, but it disputes the allegation that it delayed the investigation or handled it improperly.

"We did an investigation," he said. "There were findings of research misconduct and appropriate actions were taken."

Baldwin added there are policies and procedures in place to ensure the ethical treatment of laboratory animals.

"We have a federally-mandated institutional animal care and use committee," he said. "It provides supervision, coordination and review of every project that includes the use of animals, per federal regulations. Now, this committee includes scientists, non-scientists, veterinarians, members of the public — to encourage representation of diverse viewpoints. And that committee has the responsibility to approve, to require modification of, or to prohibit a project's use of vertebrate animals."

Baldwin said this committee reviews and monitors all research, education or testing projects involving animals at UW.

"Project proposals are scrutinized carefully by the review committee and by a veterinary staff member specialized in laboratory animal medicine to ensure that humane use guidelines are followed and that animals receive professional veterinary medical care," he said.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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