Does the punishment fit the crime? Luk Van Parijs has his day in court.

Earlier this month, the other shoe finally dropped on the Luk Van Parijs case.

You may recall that Van Parijs, then an associate professor of biology at MIT, made headlines back in October of 2005 when MIT fired him after spending nearly a year investigating charges that he had falsified and fabricated data and finding those charges warranted. We discussed the case as it was unfolding (here and here), and discussed also the "final action" by the Office of Research Intergrity on the case (which included disbarment from federal funding through December 21, 2013).

But losing the MIT position and five year's worth of eligibility for federal funding (counting from when Van Parijs entered the Voluntary Exclusion Agreement with the feds) is not the extent of the formal punishment to be exacted for his crimes -- hence the aforementioned other shoe. As well, the government filed criminal charges against Van Parijs and sought jail time.

As reported in a news story posted 28 June 2011 at Nature ("Biologist spared jail for grant fraud" by Eugenie Samuel Reich, doi:10.1038/474552a):

In February 2011, US authorities filed criminal charges against Van Parijs in the US District Court in Boston, citing his use of fake data in a 2003 grant application to the National Institutes of Health, based in Bethesda, Maryland. Van Parijs entered a guilty plea, and the government asked Judge Denise Casper for a 6-month jail term because of the seriousness of the fraud, which involved a $2-million grant. "We want to discourage other researchers from engaging in similar behaviour," prosecutor Gregory Noonan, an assistant US attorney, told Nature.

On 13 June, Casper opted instead for six months of home detention with electronic monitoring, plus 400 hours of community service and a payment to MIT of $61,117 — restitution for the already-spent grant money that MIT had to return to the National Institutes of Health. She cited assertions from the other scientists that Van Parijs was truly sorry. "I believe that the remorse that you've expressed to them, to the probation office, and certainly to the Court today, is heartfelt and deeply held, and I don't think it's in any way contrived for this Court," she said.

Let me pause for a moment to let you, my readers, roll your eyes or howl or do whatever else you deem appropriate to express your exasperation that Van Parijs's remorse counts for anything in his sentencing.

Verily, it is not hard to become truly sorry once you have been caught doing bad stuff. The challenge is not to do the bad stuff in the first place. And, the actual level of remorse in Van Parijs's heart does precisely nothing to mitigate the loss (in time and money, to name just two) suffered by other researchers relying on Van Parijs to make honest representations in his journal articles and grant proposals.

Still, there's probably a relevant difference (not just ethically, but also pragmatically) between the scientist caught deceiving the community who gets what such deception is a problem and manifests remorse and the scientist caught deceiving the community who doesn't see what the big deal is (because surely everyone does this sort of thing, at least occasionally, to survive in the high-pressure environment). With the remorseful cheater, there might at least be some hope of rehabilitation.

Indeed, the article notes:

Luk Van Parijs was first confronted with evidence of data falsification by members of his laboratory in 2004, when he was an associate professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. Within two days, he had confessed to several acts of fabrication and agreed to cooperate with MIT's investigation.

A confession within two days of being confronted with the evidence is fairly swift. Other scientific cheaters in the headlines seem to dig their heels in and protest their innocence (or that the post-doc or grad student did it) for significantly longer than that.

Anyway, I think it's reasonable for us to ask here what the punishment is intended to accomplish in a case like this. If the goal is something beyond satisfying our thirst for vengeance, then maybe we will find that the penalty imposed on Van Parijs is useful even if it doesn't include jail time.

As it happens, one of the scientists who asked the judge in the case for clemency on his behalf suggests that jail time might be a penalty that actually discourages the participation of other members of the scientific community in rooting out fabrication and falsification. Of course, not everyone in the scientific community agrees:

[MIT biologist Richard] Hynes argued that scientific whistleblowers might be reluctant to come forwards if they thought their allegations might result in jail for the accused.

But that is not how the whistleblowers in this case see it. One former member of Van Parijs' MIT lab, who spoke to Nature on condition of anonymity, says he doesn't think the prospect of Van Parijs' imprisonment would have deterred the group from coming forwards. Nor does he feel the punishment is adequate. "Luk's actions resulted in many wasted years as people struggled to regain their career paths. How do you measure the cost to the trainees when their careers have been derailed and their reputations brought into question?" he asks. The court did not ask these affected trainees for their statements before passing sentence on Van Parijs.

This gets into a set of questions we've discussed before:

I'm inclined to think that the impulse to deal with science's youthful offenders privately is a response to the fear that handing them over to federal authorities has a high likelihood of ending their scientific careers forever. There is a fear that a first offense will be punished with the career equivalent of the death penalty.

Permanent expulsion or a slap on the wrist is not much of a range of penalties. And, I suspect neither of these options really address the question of whether rehabilitation is possible and in the best interests of both the individual and the scientific community. ...

If no errors in judgment are tolerated, people will do anything to conceal such errors. Mentors who are trying to be humane may become accomplices in the concealment. The conversations about how to make better judgments may not happen because people worry that their hypothetical situations will be scrutinized for clues about actual screw-ups.

Possibly we need to recognize that it's an empirical question what constellation of penalties (including jail time) encourage or discourage whisteblowing -- and to deploy some social scientists to get reliable empirical data that might usefully guide decisions about institutional structures of rewards and penalties that will best encourage the kinds of individual behaviors that lead to robust knowledge-building activities and effectively coordinated knowledge-building communities.

But, it's worth noting that even though he won't be doing jail time, Van Parijs doesn't escape without punishment.

He will be serving the same amount of time under home detention (with electronic monitoring) as he would have served in jail if the judge had given the sentence the government was asking for. In other words, he is not "free" for those six months. (Indeed, assuming he serves this home detention in the home shared by his wife and their three young children, I reckon there is a great deal of work that he might be called on to do with respect to child care and household chores, work that he might escape in a six-month jail sentence.)

Let's not forget that it costs money to incarcerate people. The public picks up the tab for those expenses. Home detention almost certainly costs the public less. And, Van Parijs is probably less in a position to reoffend during his home detention, even if he slipped out of his ankle monitor, than is the guy who robs convenience stores. What university is going to be looking at his data?

Speaking of the public's money, recall that another piece of the sentence is restitution -- paying back to MIT the $61,117 that MIT spent when it returned Van Parijs's grant money to NIH. Since Van Parijs essentially robbed the public of the grant money (by securing it with lies and/or substitute lies for the honest scientific results the grant-supported research was supposed to be generating), it is appropriate that Van Parijs dip into his own pocket to pay this money back.

It's a little more complicated, since he needs to pay MIT back. MIT seems to have recognized that paying the public back as soon as the problem was established was the right thing to do, or a good way to reassure federal funding agencies and the the public that universities like MIT take their obligations to the public very seriously, or both. A judgment that doesn't make MIT eat that loss, in turn, should encourage other universities that find themselves in similar situations to step up right away and make things right with the funding agencies.

And, in recognition that the public may have been hurt by Van Parijs's deception beyond the monetary cost of it, Van Parijs will be doing 400 hours of community service. In inclined to believe that given the current fiscal realities of federal, state, and local governments, there is some service the community needs -- and doesn't have adequate funds to pay for -- that Van Parijs might provide in those 400 hours. Perhaps it will not be a service he finds intellectually stimulating to provide, but that's part of what makes it punishment.

Undoubtedly, there are members of the scientific community or of the larger public that will feel that this punishment just isn't enough -- that Van Parijs committed crimes against scientific integrity that demand harsher penalties.

Pragmatically, though, I think we need to ask what it would cost to secure those penalties. We cannot ignore the costs to the universities and to the federal agencies to conduct their investigations (here Van Parijs confessed rather denying the charges and working to obstruct the fact-finding), or to prosecutors to go to trial (here again, Van Parijs pled guilty rather than mounting a vigorous defense). Maybe there was a time where there were ample resources to spend on full-blown investigations and trials of this sort, but that time ain't now.

And, we might ask what jailing Van Parijs would accomplish beyond underlining that fabrication and falsification on the public's dime is a very bad thing to do.

Would jail time make it harder for Van Parijs to find another position within the tribe of science than it will already be for him? (Asked another way, would being sentenced to home detention take any of the stink off the verdict of fraud against him?) I reckon the convicted fraudster scientist has a harder time finding a job than your average ex-con -- and that scientists who feel his punishment is not enough can lobby the rest of their scientific community to keep a skeptical eye on Van Parijs (should he publish more papers, apply for jobs within the tribe of science, or what have you).

9 responses so far

  • ET says:

    Why do you call it "work that he might be called on to do with respect to child care and household chores" ?

    It seems to me that when father do this its called work, when mothers do the same thing its called nothing or mothering.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      You're quite right. In my household, we call childcare, household chores, and the like "work" no matter the gender of the parent doing it, but I recognize that common usage outside of my house tends to render the labor invisible if it's done by a mother (or even by a father who does not also work outside of the home).

      The salient point I was trying to make is that jail in this case (which I doubt would have been at a maximum security facility) might have involved a lot of time watching TV, or working out in the gym, or reading books in the prison library. Which, to me as a parent, would have aspects of a vacation from the real labor of being a contributing member of a family, especially one with young children who expect to be fed every day, who generate piles of dirty laundry and other sorts of tidying up, frequently require mediation of their disputes, etc., etc.

      I have no information about the division of domestic labor in the Van Parijs household prior to the fraud case. But, given what I have seen in families where one partner is a high-powered academic scientist, it would not be a complete surprise if perhaps Luk Van Parijs was able to skate by with less of the domestic burden owing to the demands on his time of his position at MIT.

      Given that now his wife is at present (according to the court filings) the main breadwinner for the family, home detention would have the advantage of keeping him close to that domestic labor and available to pick up the slack that needs picking up.

  • becca says:

    "Given that now his wife is at present (according to the court filings) the main breadwinner for the family"
    So is the 60k effectively going to be coming out of her paycheck then? That's a powerful disincentive to get married.

  • It seems like you are downplaying the deterrence function of punishment. While deterrence can cut in the other way if punishment is too extreme, and thereby encourage coverups, I would assume that the threat of actual jail time would provide a clarifying influence on the minds of potential science fraudsters.

  • Ann Marie says:

    I knew Luk personally. I was an undergraduate at MIT before the whole thing came to light (I graduated in 2004), and I was assigned to him as one of his academic advisees (not a research/laboratory relationship). He was very helpful when I was deciding on whether or not to go to graduate school and later about which graduate schools to target.

    People who knew him seemed to like him, which is why it was such a punch in the gut to so many people that he fabricated data to get ahead. He was seen as a superstar at MIT because he was so young and successful when he started as faculty. Now that we know...

    I think he got a (mostly) deserving punishment for the reasons outlined in the post. I don't think that jail time would have made most of the affected people feel better. His name is permanently marred by his fraud, and as a professor and a scientist, his reputation is one of the most important things in the world, so his loss of reputation is probably worse than jail time.

    The paper retractions were devastating to the other authors involved, I'm sure, and I don't know what negative repercussions came about because of them. I feel the most sympathy for the graduate students, post-docs and other scientists whose careers were affected by his fraud because they did the vast majority (if not all) of the research required to publish those papers. People work so hard to publish authentic data, and for that reason, I think it would be fair if he never worked in scientific research again.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Given the fact that many people involved in this sort of behavior disappear or slink away, I would give him credit for the quick confession, etc.

    I believe there are fake crystal structures in the PDB relating to another case of fraud that are still waiting to be retracted years afterwards. The confession probably speeds things up in terms of the retraction process.

    • Eugenie Samuel Reich says:

      @Pinko Punko Would you be willing to drop me a line with more details about the suspect crystal structures at eugenie [dot] reich [at] gmail [dot] com? I'm a reporter for Nature and am interested in these kinds of problems. I'd be happy to respect your anonymity.

  • Gareth Pryce says:

    When we saw van Parijs's original J Exp Med paper in 1997 we voiced our concerns about data fabrication of FACS plots to the editors (subsequently also found to be fraudulent by the office of scientific integrity). Nothing was done. It is tempting to speculate that had action been taken at the time this whole affair could have been nipped in the bud.