A researcher exploring ways to convert cow poop into electrical power faked data and claimed his laboratory notebook blew into a manure pit, according to a Washington State University investigation.
The university also concluded that Craig Frear, who was an assistant professor in WSU’s Department of Biological Engineering, failed to declare a conflict of interest based on his patents and links with makers of dairy-waste digesters.
Frear has since resigned, WSU spokesman Robert Strenge said in an email.
The university requested that an article based on the data be retracted by the international science journal that published it in 2011.
Frear, now director of research and technology at Regenis, a company in Ferndale, Whatcom County, that specializes in digesters, did not reply to emails and phone calls seeking comment.
Regenis spokesman Michael Grossman dismissed the incident as “a couple of botched data points,” and said the company stands by Frear and his expertise.
The investigation was first reported this month by Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks scientific malfeasance and mistakes.
Frear’s research involved a process called anaerobic digestion, in which cow manure is piped into a vessel where bacteria break down the waste and convert it into biogas, or methane. Several Washington dairies have such digesters, which help address the problem of manure disposal while also generating electricity from burning the gas.
Gas production can be improved by mixing in food waste, such as restaurant scraps and fish trimmings. Frear was working with a dairy in Whatcom County to quantify those improvements on a large scale.
His study, published in the journal CLEAN: Soil, Air, Water, concluded that adding food waste more than doubled gas production and tripled revenue, partly because farmers could charge fees for disposing the scraps.
But when a former WSU colleague took a closer look at the numbers, he discovered problems.
Simon Smith was helping the Washington Department of Ecology analyze emissions from burning biogas. He compared data provided by Frear with original laboratory spread sheets and saw large discrepancies, all of which made the process appear more efficient.
“It just didn’t make sense to me,” said Smith, who’s now based at Idaho State University.
When Smith pointed out the pattern, Frear blamed it on student technicians and weaknesses in the analytic methods.
“We had some back and forth,” Smith said. “But there was really only one explanation. It had to be fraud.”
Frear told the WSU investigation committee that he thought the original results from the students’ analyses seemed low, so he retested the samples himself. He said he recorded the new data in a laboratory notebook, which was lost when it blew into a manure pit. He also said he lost photocopies of the notebook and overwrote the original data on his computer.
The WSU committee didn’t buy those explanations. “Dr. Frear’s explanation of why no physical evidence of his reanalysis exists is not credible,” panel members wrote.
The committee concluded Frear “committed research misconduct with respect to (1) fabricating experimental data and (2) knowingly and intentionally falsifying data … .”
The committee also pointed out that Frear and a WSU colleague held several patents for a process related to waste digestion and had formed a company that collaborated with the manufacturer of the digester Frear used in his analysis. But Frear did not declare those financial conflicts of interest in the journal article, as required.
The incident is the second case of alleged research misconduct connected with WSU this year.
In September, a high-profile WSU study of diabetes and obesity in hibernating grizzly bears was retracted after a co-author from the biotech firm Amgen was found to have manipulated experimental data.
But Strenge said the university hasn’t instituted any additional policies to combat fraud.
“All WSU faculty receive training in professional ethics and research misconduct and the university subscribes to the belief that … traditional peer-review … provides the most reliable and effective means of addressing ethical violations such as data manipulation,” he wrote.
Smith reported his suspicions to WSU administrators in 2013. According to university guidelines, misconduct investigations are supposed to be completed within nine months, but this one took nearly two years. The final report was issued in March 2015.
Smith said one reason he decided to blow the whistle is that he’s concerned about the impact bad data could have on well-intentioned efforts to turn waste into energy.
Many dairy farmers are investing in the technology in an effort to reduce their environmental footprint while also bringing in revenue.
“These guys are stretched thin and working incredibly hard … to get these digesters functioning,” he said. “So when I see somebody fudging the numbers either deliberately or unintentionally because of conflict of interest, they are corrupting the whole thing.”
Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
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