Researcher faked data in high-voltage power line
Times News Service
probe has found that a scientist at the Lawrence
Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., faked
what had been considered key evidence of a tie
between electromagnetic radiation and cancer.
The disclosure appears to strengthen the case
that electric power is safe.
Robert P. Liburdy, a cell biologist at the
laboratory, an arm of the Energy Department, was
found to have published two papers with
misleading data. Investigators said Liburdy
eliminated data that did not support his
conclusions. After the investigation, he
resigned quietly from the Lawrence Berkeley
Laboratory in March and has agreed to withdraw
his research findings.
Federal officials say his misrepresentations
helped him win $3.3 million in grants from the
National Institutes of Health, the Department of
Energy and the Department of Defense to
investigate a link between electric power and
Debate has raged for decades over whether power
lines cause cancer even though top scientific
groups such as the National Academy of Sciences
have repeatedly found no evidence of danger. But
other researchers say enough tantalizing clues
keep emerging to warrant further investigations
of possible links between electromagnetic
radiation and killer diseases, sowing seeds of
anxiety among people living near high-tension
"If he hadn't gotten these results, nobody would
have paid any attention," a federal investigator
in the case, who spoke on the condition of
anonymity, said yesterday.
The two papers reported data indicating that
electromagnetic fields, also known as EMF, exert
a biological effect by altering the entry of
calcium across a cell's surface membrane. The
fields are ubiquitous forms of radiation that
arise from all power lines, home wiring and
Federal officials say Liburdy's claims were
potentially very important when published in
1992 because they purported to link
electromagnetic fields to calcium signaling,
which is a fundamental process governing many
important cellular functions.
"When he originally published these papers,
there was quite a bit of interest in it," said
Woods. "Now both the lab and the Office of
Research Integrity have found that data on which
he based his conclusions were fabricated. He's
been asked to withdraw that data, and I think
he's doing that right now."
As part of his federal settlement, Liburdy has
agreed to make no applications for federal
grants for three years and not to contest the
federal findings in administrative proceedings.
Liburdy can, however, disagree publicly with the
misconduct findings, and he is doing so
vigorously, professing his innocence.
The ethics probe of Liburdy began after a
whistle-blower challenged his intriguing
results. In July 1995, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab
determined that Liburdy had indeed falsified
data, and it alerted the Office of Research
Integrity, an arm of the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services.
Last month, the integrity office announced its
findings in the Federal Register, saying Liburdy
had "engaged in scientific misconduct in
biomedical research by falsifying and
fabricating data and claims about the purported
cellular effects of electric and magnetic
Recently, in letters sent over the Internet to
scientific colleagues and interested parties,
Liburdy has denied that his research is wrong
and said he agreed to the federal settlement
only because he was unable to spend $1 million
to mount a legal defense.
"The raw data for these figures is not
challenged, and is valid," Liburdy wrote in one
letter. "How I graphed them is a matter of
disagreement among scientists. Independent
scientists have reviewed this for me and
concluded that misconduct is not warranted."
He also stressed that "none of my scientific
conclusions in the two papers are being
retracted," only the disputed published data.
Requests for further comments left yesterday at
Liburdy's residence in Tiburon, just north of
San Francisco, went unanswered.
Federal experts vigorously disagree with
Liburdy's defense and claims of innocence.
"This is not a matter of interpretation or
graphing," said the investigator. "This is
fabrication and falsification. He can express
his opinion, but not to an appeal board."
In misconduct cases, especially ones involving
large sums of money, the federal government can
bring civil or criminal charges, and the
defendant can be fined and sentenced to jail. In
this case, officials say, they concluded that an
administrative remedy was sufficient.
The terms of the settlement with Liburdy are
detailed in the June 17 Federal Register. The
notice says Liburdy "neither admits or denies"
the finding of scientific misconduct.
Federal officials say Liburdy did not spend all
of the $3.3 million in grant money, and that the
remainder is controlled by the Lawrence Berkeley
"It's being used for other science" and none of
it has been returned to the federal government,
Glenn R. Woods, the laboratory's counsel, said
Liburdy's two disputed papers both appeared in
1992, and in both cases he was the lone author.
The paper, "Biological interactions of cellular
systems with time-varying magnetic fields,"
appeared in the Annals of the New York Academy
of Sciences. "Calcium signaling in lymphocytes
in ELF fields" appeared in FEBS Letters,
published by the Federation of European
In the years since Liburdy's research appeared,
more than 20 studies have found no hard evidence
that electric power causes cancer, a National
Institutes of Health panel concluded recently.
Robert L. Park, a professor of physics at the
University of Maryland who has long questioned
the power-cancer link, said Liburdy's deception
was probably typical for the field, which he
said seems to attract crusaders out to vilify
"It's often not deliberate fraud either," Park
said of slanted data. "People are awfully good
at fooling themselves. They're so sure they know
the answer that they don't want to confuse
people with ugly-looking data."
In the power line debate, Park added, the
proponents of danger "were desperately looking
for a physical effect, and the nearest they
could come by was the calcium signal."
The growing consensus among researchers seems to
be that electric power is safe.
Two years ago, a large, meticulously designed
study found no evidence that electromagnetic
fields emanating from power lines cause leukemia
in children. The study was a collaboration
between scientists at the National Cancer
Institute and childhood leukemia specialists
from the nation's leading medical centers.
The study involved 636 children with acute
lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common
childhood cancer, and 620 healthy children who
were matched to the cancer patients by race, age
and residential neighborhood.
Scientists tracked the children's exposure to
the fields that power lines produce, but found
no relationship between exposure and risk.
Park said the new findings of power-cancer
misrepresentation will aid the emerging
consensuses on safety. "But I'm not sure how
strongly," he added, as other scientists are
still investigating and advancing the idea of a