A decision by the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) to retain its director with full duties despite a finding that he engaged in research misconduct has sparked disbelief. The investigation by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI), released Wednesday and first reported by Retraction Watch, found Deepak Kaushal guilty of “intentionally, knowingly, and/or recklessly falsifying and fabricating” data in a monkey study, which was published in one paper and two grant applications.
“It’s disappointing that there’s no real consequences,” says JoAnne Flynn, a microbiologist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies tuberculosis in monkeys—the topic of Kaushal’s study. She worries the case and the lack of action by SNPRC will fuel public doubts about animal research. “It’s bad for the field,” she says. “There’s already such mistrust of science.”
Kaushal has not escaped all consequences. As part of a settlement agreement with ORI, his research will be supervised for a year by a committee of senior faculty members. (The National Institutes of Health [NIH] says it is reviewing the impact of ORI’s findings but says it does not discuss cases.)
ORI has no say over Kaushal’s employment at SNPRC, however, which is based in San Antonio. He will retain all his duties there, says Lisa Cruz, vice president of communications. “Dr. Kaushal is an outstanding and transformative SNPRC director and the misconduct finding is not directly related to, and does not impact, his administrative leadership functions.”
The misconduct case stems from a study published by Kaushal and colleagues in February 2020. Working at the Tulane National Primate Research Center, where Kushal was then the director of the Center for Tuberculosis Research, the team tested whether a combination of two drugs could clear the tuberculosis bacterium from monkeys with infections but no symptoms.
The scientists reported they treated seven monkeys, and then infected these animals and seven controls with simian immunodeficiency virus, which is closely related to HIV in humans and reactivates tuberculosis. Tuberculosis symptoms did not return in any of the treated animals, the team reported, but most of the controls again fell ill with the disease. Kaushal subsequently included data from the study in two NIH grant applications.
The ORI investigation, launched in response to an anonymous complaint filed in late 2020, found several problems with the study. One monkey in the control group was actually treated with the drug combo, for example. ORI also found that the team “falsified and fabricated” the number of drug doses given to the animals, when these doses were given, and several other aspects of the work.
Ironically, the alterations may have weakened the conclusions of the study, not strengthened them. By misplacing a treated animal in the control group, for example, the work made the two-drug combo seem less effective than it actually was. That has caused some experts to wonder whether the study’s problems are due to carelessness rather than malfeasance.
Kaushal has admitted to the details of the case, per the ORI report, and his team retracted the study in April 2021, noting problems with the protocol. But he has not commented publicly about the findings and did not respond to several interview requests from Science.
Kaushal became director of SNPRC in January 2019, and the center notes that none of ORI’s allegations relate to his work there. “This was a first-time incident, and to our knowledge, the only time this has happened in Dr. Kaushal’s lab,” Larry Schlesinger, president and CEO of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, which oversees SNPRC, said in a statement provided to Science. “Dr. Kaushal retracted the paper that featured this data and corrected the study using appropriate study implementation. The results were exactly the same. … Data from all studies carried out at Texas Biomed have been reviewed and found to be accurate.”
“In addition to ORI oversight, Dr. Kaushal has received internal consequences, including significant oversight of his lab,” Schlesinger continued. “Texas Biomed is confident that this will not happen again.”
Still, many in the field question whether Kaushal should remain the director of SNPRC, which receives about $10 million in federal funding per year and houses about 2500 marmosets, baboons, and macaques. “Any scientist who knowingly and intentionally falsifies data for the purpose of scientific publication and/or receipt of government funding should not be allowed to lead a research institution,” says Ronald Desrosiers, former director of the now-defunct New England Primate Research Center. “A mistake is one thing,” says Desrosiers, who emphasizes that he’s not familiar with the specifics of Kaushal’s case. “Intentional falsification is another.”
“All scientists should be held to high ethical standards. But those of us working with nonhuman primates should be held to the highest ethical standards,” adds Eliza Bliss-Moreau, who studies the neurobiology of emotions in monkeys at the California National Primate Research Center. “We’re stewards of the science, but we’re also stewards of the monkeys.”