Committing the Truth

After years of retaliation because she was a whistleblower, a leading Alzheimer's researcher can vouch for how poorly Arizona law protects university employees who report waste or fraud

In fact, though, many of those outside researchers did see all the evidence of consequence. In an effort to find outside opinion, Kay's attorney sent the charges and evidence against her to more than 20 top scientists, many of whom had never met Kay. Their unanimous conclusion: The charges and the investigations were bogus.

The retaliations, Kay says, began in 1992 after Kay complained that the university was double-billing her for maintenance of her laboratory. In essence, the university was sending her separate bills for work that should have been covered by maintenance funds the university already had received through Kay's grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Once she complained, she says, her research assistants began reporting being harassed by supporters of the administrators who oversaw the questionable billings. The harassment increased steadily until 1996, when someone twice unplugged a freezer (and disabled the freezer's alarm) that held an estimated $85,000 worth of research, including irreplaceable serum samples taken in the 1970s from survivors of the Hiroshima bombing.

When Carol Bernstein isn't fighting for the rights of Arizona's whistleblowers, she is at UofA researching colon cancer as well as the mechanism of human aging and sexual reproduction.
When Carol Bernstein isn't fighting for the rights of Arizona's whistleblowers, she is at UofA researching colon cancer as well as the mechanism of human aging and sexual reproduction.

Kay wrote letters to her university president protesting the harassment. She contacted Tucson police to investigate the vandalism. In response, on August 2, 1996, the vice president for research ordered her out of her laboratory immediately.

Kay's laboratory equipment filled nine semi-trailers. But that year, she was forced by administrators to move her lab several times and store equipment at multiple storage lockers distributed throughout Tucson.

"They later accused me of losing paperwork," Kay says. "The miracle is, even with all the moves they put me through, I didn't lose a thing."

Perhaps the most serious charges against Kay stem from her landmark paper in the respected medical journal Gerontology in early 1997. Kay wrote that her research suggested that human antibodies could distinguish between cell membranes of healthy individuals and those of people with Alzheimer's disease. She made it clear that these were preliminary findings from a small sample base and that further research would need to be done. But the implications were extremely promising, perhaps the biggest breakthrough in her stellar 20-year research of human aging.

She may have found a method for quickly, cheaply and unequivocally diagnosing Alzheimer's. And the cellular mechanisms she discovered perhaps could open doors to a better understanding of the disease, and thus, potential cures.

In the last three years, Kay's findings have been supported in similar laboratory tests around the world.

But soon after the paper appeared, and soon after her damning legislative testimony about UofA billing practices, two of her junior laboratory staff (one of whom had recently resigned) came forward claiming, among other things, that Kay told her to throw out data that didn't support her conclusions, that Kay misrepresented the number of test subjects and that a graph published with the article was known to be inaccurate. Also, the lab books involved in the research were supposedly missing.

In fact, one of five tables included with the article included a subset of data instead of the complete data on which Kay was basing a side argument to her general thesis. It was a subset given to her by her technician. After the article was printed and Kay was informed that the table did not represent the complete data, she wrote a correction that appeared in the journal. It was, according to her and peer scientists, a small, honest mistake made by a subordinate on the fringe of a mountain of solid research, and it was quickly corrected through the proper channels. As one peer researcher said, "If that's scientific misconduct, then every researcher in the world is doomed."

The university began investigating Kay on a wide variety of charges, including accusations that she violated rules on dealing with human subjects, mishandled radioactive and biohazardous materials, failed to supervise properly and made up data, referring to the table that had already been retracted.

Concerning the two fabrication charges, Cusanovich wrote to Kay: "I am pleased to report that allegations of research fraud or data fabrication against you have not been substantiated."

At that time, though, Cusanovich ordered Kay to "cease all activities involving the use of human subjects, radioisotopes and biohazards." He called on the university's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) to pursue a formal investigation.

So, in effect, her research was halted without any evidence of wrongdoing.

In the year that followed, those charges of research fraud and data fabrication were reinitiated, even though she had been absolved of them.

Particularly troubling to investigators, and a primary reason given for pursuing charges, was that several of the key lab books that would prove Kay's guilt or innocence were missing.

Those missing data were "the crux of the first two charges" against Kay, the chairman of the CAFT panel said.

What was rarely mentioned, and consistently ignored by investigators, was that the lab books were missing because they were in the possession of the junior researcher who had resigned and who was making the most serious charges against Kay. The assistant resigned, Kay says, as Kay was beginning to suspect that the technician was grossly overstating her hours worked.

Kay's attorney has extensive documentation proving that Kay immediately secured all data and records in her possession when the university asked her to, and she pursued the technician's notebooks with increasing urgency.

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