Most of my job as an academic researcher is spent at my desk or in meetings, so it was with some surprise that I ended up working on a legal case. I felt like a scientist in a TV thriller. I had been contacted by someone who asked me to analyse some simple data, and the results were clear: they revealed deaths and emergency admissions to hospital caused by a known environmental toxin.

The authorities had been warned about the toxin, but downplayed the problem and told the public there was no great cause for concern. Because of my findings the local residents managed to get a public legal inquiry and I was called to give evidence. I decided to arrive a day early and watch the inquiry from the public viewing area. I was interested in the inquiry, but I also wanted to get an idea of what it would be like to be cross-examined by lawyers.

Itwas an unexpectedly sensational day. A few days after my results went public, the authorities hired another academic from a prestigious university to dispute my findings. The lawyer representing the local residents cross-examined the academic and staff from the authorities, and in painstaking detail pieced together how they had colluded to create results that better suited the authority’s agenda.

At first I was angry. The authorities had painted themselves into a corner with their slow initial reaction to the discovery of the environmental toxin. Rather than simply admit this error and lose face, they decided to try and prove they were right not to take action at the time by hiring another academic to reinterpret the data. There was even an email trail between the authorities and academic that discussed how the first set of alternative results were disappointing, but that the second set were better. It reminded me of the notorious “sexing up” of the Iraq dossier.

After hours of questioning, I knew the academic’s career was over, as they had written emails admitting their analysis could be changed to suit the authority’s agenda. The motto of “he who pays the piper calls the tune” is antithetical to science.

When the inquiry ended I spoke with a colleague who worked for the same prestigious university as the mercenary academic. They assured me that senior staff were aware of what had happened and were unhappy. I presumed there would be a full internal inquiry and that the publicly available inquiry transcripts would be enough to get the academic sacked.

I felt positively about this. I know people have to feed their families, but academics willing to bend data into pound signs should be booted out of science.

Years later, at a national meeting of scientists to set future research policy, I got a horrible shock. There was the fraudulent academic. They hadn’t been sacked; they had been promoted and invited to give their views on the future of research on a level footing with myself and other colleagues who I greatly respect. I was flabbergasted.

How dis this happen? My strong suspicion is that the academic’s university had no desire for an inquiry that might risk damaging their reputation, given their failure to prevent his wrongdoing. I now regret not making a formal complaint for malpractice at the time, which would have forced them to take action.

It might be a somewhat uncertain and potentially unpleasant process: whistleblowers often have a rough time, and the process can turn on them. But if I had a time machine I would definitely go back and make the complaint. It depresses me to think of the research being done by this academic-for-hire, and the money they are taking from worthy researchers.

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