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  • Congress Faults Purdue Probe
May 2007
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind., May 15, 2007 -- The chairman of a congressional subcommittee has criticized Purdue University for conducting an incomplete investigation into a case of alleged misconduct involving nuclear engineering professor Rusi P. Taleyarkhan and his research into sonofusion, also known as tabletop or bubble fusion.

In a May 9 letter to Purdue President Martin C. Jischke, Rep. Brad Miller, chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight for the US House Committee on Science and Technology, took Purdue to task for failing to follow its own rules regarding investigating research misconduct allegations and for failing to review the validity of the research in question, instead choosing to focus only on whether Taleyarkhan had improperly omitted his name as an author of two papers published by researchers working under him that claimed to independently confirm his results.
Rusi Taleyarkhan with his tabletop fusion equipment at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he conducted sonofusion research before joining Purdue University as a professor of nuclear engineering. His results have been questioned from the start. (US Department of Energy file photo/Lynn Freeny)
One of the authors said he had nothing to do with the research and was credited on the paper without his permission, while the other refused to say who had written the report. Purdue's own inquiry concluded that Taleyarkhan had: Participated significantly in the writing of the publications, making his claim of independent confirmation "highly doubtful;" placed the name of a student uninvolved with the research on the report; "abused his privilege as a senior scientist" with respect to his lab workers and put junior scientists in "precarious positions."

Miller took issue with the fact that, despite the university concluding that Taleyarkhan's actions were "representative of poor judgment" and would not be accepted by the scientific community, it did not initiate a wider investigation, which "Purdue's own policy would seem to require," Miller said in the letter.

Miller also expressed "disappointment" with the composition of a second investigation committee recently convened by the university, saying that the three members selected and the staff member assigned had all been involved with previous efforts, and that a "credible inquiry" would require participation by persons independent of the previous probe.

Taleyarkhan first reported his research, which began when he worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), in March 2002 in Science. He said he had demonstrated that using sound waves to compress bubbles in deuterated liquids until they collapsed produced fusion under lab conditions.

According to information provided by Purdue, scientists have long known that high-frequency sound waves cause the formation of cavities and bubbles in liquid, a process known as "acoustic cavitation," and that those cavities then implode, producing high temperatures and light in a phenomenon called sonoluminescence. Researchers have estimated that temperatures inside the imploding bubbles reach 10 million °C and pressures comparable to 1000 million earth atmospheres at sea level. Nuclear fusion reactors have historically required large, expensive machines, but acoustic cavitation devices are being pursued because they might be built for a fraction of the cost and would be a clean and abundant energy source.

From 2002 to 2004, teams at ORNL and Purdue attempted to replicate his results, without success. Then, in the summer of 2005, two students working in Taleyarkhan's lab published an "independent" vertification of his findings.

In early 2006, questions raised by other nuclear engineering professors in Taleyarkhan's department resulted in the department head, Lefteri Tsoukalas, conducting his own informal investigation. That resulted in one of the students, Adam Butt, saying he had nothing to do with the research and the other, Yiban Xu, refusing to say who had written the final article.

In March 2006 Nature reported that Taleyarkhan's results were questioned from the start. Researchers who first peer-reviewed the work criticized the publication of his initial paper because Taleyarkhan hadn't ruled out several sources for potential error. It published allegations by other scientists of misconduct by Taleyarkhan, saying he had refused to share data, hampered efforts to replicate his results by removing critical equipment from the lab, blocked publication of negative results by Purdue colleagues and manipulated the creation and publication of papers asserting to be independent verification.

In response, that same month Purdue launched what it said would be a "thorough review of the work and any concerns expressed about it." (See Purdue Investigates 'Bubble Fusion' Claims) The inquiry committee submitted its report to the vice president for research in June, and in July 2006, Provost Sally Mason said a formal investigation would commence. In February 2007, the university issued a statement that the evidence "does not support the allegations of research misconduct" and no further investigation would be conducted. (See Purdue Bubble Wraps Sonofusion Inquiry Results)

"Following that announcement, Purdue received additional allegations related to sonofusion and has begun an inquiry of them," Mason said. "Purdue intends to be fully responsive to the concerns expressed by Congressman Miller. We have made every effort to address honestly and thoroughly the allegations in this matter. We are in the midst of a very difficult and complex process, and there is much work to do. We will proceed systematically and fairly, and in the end, we will take whatever action is dictated by the evidence."

Jischke said the university will add "one or more" outside scientists to the panel of Purdue scientists who have "agreed to serve as reviewers during the next stage."

Joseph Bennett, vice president for university relations, said Purdue recently sent requests to potential witnesses, asking them to disclose in writing any misconduct they may have witnessed in the sonofusion research.

In a May 7 report to Miller, subcommittee staff expressed skepticism that Purdue could regain the trust and cooperation of department faculty after the last inquiry, which "seriously divided and damaged" the nuclear engineering school. The staff said the university's response to the concerns coworkers raised about Taleyarkhan's research was to "completely ignore" the information they provided, publicly disparage the whistleblowers and remove Tsoukalas, who had initially brought the allegations to the university's attention, as head of the nuclear engineering school.

Taleyarkhan said last week in an e-mail to the New York Times that the new investigation represents "a gross travesty of justice" and accused Miller's office of "cherry-picking" from the written reports to portray him in a negative light. He said the challenging of the university's verdict by his detractors "smacks of sour-grapes."

"Where are the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the Asian community during this episode that has caused this biased and openly one-sided smear campaign?," Taleyarkhan wrote.

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