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Lawrence lab admits bad science

The Associated Press
Monday July 15, 2002

Fraudulent research led to the pronouncement of a “stunning discovery” of two new heavy elements in 1999 at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, lab officials now confirm. 

At a speech to employees last month, the lab’s director, Charles Shank, said the previously hailed landmark discovery of elements 118 and 116 was the result of fabricated research data and scientific misconduct by one individual of a 15-member team. Shank’s remarks were detailed in the lab’s official newsletter. 

The individual Shank alluded to was identified by three Bay Area newspapers as physicist Victor Ninov. 

Ninov was suspended in November and later fired. Ninov now has a grievance pending against the lab regarding his dismissal. 

Last year, Lawrence Berkeley lab officials retracted the announcement that team had detected and observed the elements 118 and 116, a discovery reported in the June 1999 edition of the journal Physical Review of Letters. 

The retraction came after members of the research team that claimed to have made the breakthrough discovery failed to duplicate their results. Scientists at the GSI laboratory in Germany and the RIKEN lab in Japan were also unable to duplicate the original reported results. 

Prior to the scrutiny over the discovery, the Lawrence Berkeley lab team said its work confirmed theories that began to circulate among physicists some 30 years ago about an “island of stability” for nuclei with approximately 114 protons and 184 neutrons. 

In the original experiment, lead targets were bombarded with beams of high-energy krypton ions. The sequence of decay events for elements 118 and 116, if detected, would be consistent with theories of an “island of stability” for nuclei. 

Shank lauded his own department for ferreting out the fraud. The team’s leader, Ken Gregorich, submitted the proposed retraction last year to the journal and it was published in the July 15, 2001 issue. 

“I am proud of the intensity and professionalism of the review to get to the bottom of this, and of the commitment of the laboratory to the highest level of scientific integrity,” Shank told lab employees. “There is nothing more important for a laboratory than scientific integrity. Only with such integrity will the public, which funds our work, have confidence in us.” 

There was no phone number listed in California for Ninov. Calls placed to the lab’s spokesman Saturday by The Associated Press seeking further comment were not immediately returned. 

The heavy element research fraud is a stinging embarrassment for the lab. Shank admitted that basic verifications, necessary for such lofty scientific proclamations, were not followed. 

“In this case, the most elementary checks and data archiving were not done,” Shanks said.