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Colleagues defend Marc Hauser, criticize Harvard and media

A letter signed by prominent professors defends Marc Hauser, the Harvard psychology professor who resigned this month, a year after a university investigation concluded he was “solely responsible’’ for scientific misconduct. The letter — signed by the MIT linguist Noam Chomsky among others — denounces the way in which the investigation was carried out and the media’s reporting of the situation. It was published today in the Harvard Crimson.

“As scientists, we all ought to be scared by the idea of an inquisitorial method that abolishes the scientific method by prying into unpublished work, feeds a media frenzy (thus luring in federal prosecution), and overlooks the hypocrisy of the critics who fail to look at their own vulnerabilities and how they run their own labs,’’ said the letter.

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“If Hauser, or — to make clear the general point — anyone with a long research career, were a fundamentally flawed and deceptive scientist, their work would not have been so numerously, diversely, and robustly replicated in so many permutations of species and methodologies both by his lab and others.’’

According to federal guidelines that dictate how misconduct investigations are to be carried out, institutions must “…promptly take all reasonable and practical steps to obtain custody of all the research records and evidence needed to conduct the research misconduct proceedings, inventory the records and evidence, and sequester them in a secure manner…’’

In a letter to faculty last year, Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences outlined the exact procedures by which the university investigates allegations of scientific misconduct. The investigation, Smith wrote, “is conducted by an impartial committee of qualified, tenured faculty’’ — only after an inquiry into the allegations by a standing faculty committee deems that an investigation is warranted. The accused person is given a chance to respond to the investigating committee, and the report and response were carefully considered by the dean.

“This entire and extensive process was followed in the current case,’’ Smith wrote.

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The existence of the critical letter was first reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was written by three scholars from France and the United Kingdom, and signed by eight others, including Chomsky and Florian Engert, a professor in the department of molecular and cell biology at Harvard. The signatories indicate they “express their support for the general points concerning scientific inquiry and conduct discussed here.’’

The academics argue that the university’s use of unpublished data in its investigation undermined the scientific process and critiqued the extent of media coverage when so much about the case is still unknown.

“It has a distinctive ring of McCarthyism, and all the toxic implications of that witch-hunting era,’’ the letter states. “This is an issue larger than Marc Hauser, with implications for the very integrity of science — the central issue of this essay.’’

The letter quotes from personal correspondence with Bennett G. Galef, Jr., a professor at McMaster University in Ontario, who reviewed documents from the Harvard investigation at the request of Hauser and his lawyers.

“In my opinion there is nothing in the charges and data relating to the three published articles to show Hauser guilty of anything,’’ Galef wrote. “Rather, what I saw on numerous occasions in numerous ways was Harvard violating what I take to be elementary principles of natural justice.’’

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Jeff Neal, a Harvard spokesman referrerd back to Smith’s letter to the faculty last year, in which he wrote that an internal investigation had found that Hauser engaged in scientific misconduct in eight instances, including three published papers.

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