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More Questions for Science Foundation Ireland Director General

November 13, 2013

Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton, SFI Director General Mark Ferguson and Minister of State Sean Sherlock

How many more skeletons can Science Foundation Ireland’s Director General, Mark Ferguson, possibly have in his closet? Last year this blog revealed the facts about Renovo, the spin-off company that was founded by Science Foundations Ireland’s then newly appointed Director General, Mark Ferguson.

Now it has emerged that in 1982 Ferguson was mentioned in a New York Times article as the most visible case of academic misconduct, whereby authors simultaneously submit identical results to different journals.

In this piece we look at the latest revelations about the Renovo collapse and the controversial promotion of Ferguson to the post to Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland as well as the details of the “duplicate publication” case.

The Renovo Disaster

Ferguson was appointed to head up Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) on the back of his experience of turning research into a commercial success at Renovo Plc.  One would have expected that Renovo was a paragon for successful research commercialisation but in fact it is a remarkable case study of outright failure . It received large sums of money, including £63 million of investors’ money, £58 million of investment from the pharmaceutical company Shire, along with £16.5 million of British tax-payers money in the form of grants and research tax credits.

However, all of the drug products ultimately failed their clinical tests and none were developed to market.  In 2011, the scientific research was terminated and all of the employees were laid off.  The investors were wiped and the company was delisted from the main stock market.

Despite this, the company directors received very substantial rewards over the five years that it operated as a listed company. Mark Ferguson received £3.6 million including a golden handshake of £700,000. His wife Sharon O’Kane, the Chief Scientific Officer up to 2010, received over £1.6 million. In addition, between them they netted £9.4 million by exercising a director’s option when the shares were at their peak in 2007.

Right up to the time of the complete share collapse, Ferguson was bullish about the clinical failures and the markets’ reaction to them. Take a look at the video below – an excerpt from the University of Manchester Vital Topics Lecture Ferguson gave in 2008 (full version available here).

The video is remarkable for a number of reasons. Aside from the CEO of a listed company discussing his company’s share price movements, he rages against the British press and blames them, rather than the failed clinical trials, for the plunging share value.

Following the failure of all of its products, Renovo ceased all clinical activities and it no longer engages in any trading activities. It now operates as an investment vehicle and recently used its remaining reserves to acquire Ultimate Finance which is a finance company that provides debt factoring, hire purchase and other trade finance.

 Jumping Ship 

The SFI Director General

The SFI Director General

After such a high profile corporate collapse how did Ferguson end up at the helm of SFI?

In a significant development, The Irish Mail on Sunday discovered that the Taoiseach’s office and Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation helped secure a €190,000-a-year salary for the new boss of Science Foundation Ireland, despite fierce resistance by the Department of Public Expenditure.

The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation claimed at the time that Ferguson “has been involved in several successful commercial ventures arising from his academic career“. Notably, that claim – indeed any mention of Renovo – were not included in the Department’s recent announcement of his appointment as Chief Scientific Advisor to the Taoiseach.

The Turmoil at SFI

Concurrent with the emergence of the Renovo story, Ferguson’s initial time at the helm of SFI has been marked by a notable degree of turmoil and controversy.

The blow-back from all of this has been an almost daily stream of information, questions, links and rants on a record-breaking post on the Indymedia site.

Meanwhile, in an extraordinary use of state funds, SFI sought and obtained a high court injunction compelling an Irish Internet Service Provider to supply it with the IP address of those posting “defamatory” material on the internet. SFI refused to divulge just how much money had been spent in seeking the high court injunction.

Spot the Difference 

Back in 1982, a New York Times article reported how the editors of leading scientific journals were cracking down on what they considered deceptive or improper practices by researchers who submitted the same paper simultaneously to two or more journals.

The most visible case was a report on alligator egg shells which served as the cover story in Science on December 4, 1981 and which contained “much of the same data” as a report subsequently published in the journal Experientia.

The author of both reports was Mark W.J. Ferguson of Queen’s University of Belfast and in the June 18th 1982 issue of the Science, the following letter appeared:

Alligator eggs on the cover of Science in June 1982

Duplicate Publication
I write regarding my report “Extrinsic microbial degradation of the alligator eggshell” (4 Dec. 1981, p. 1135), which I submitted to Science on 17 October 1980. I used much of the data from this report in a paper submitted on 30 September 1980 to Experientia. I had intended to withdraw the Experientia paper if the manuscript for Science was accepted. However, due to a gross oversight on my part I failed to withdraw it, and the paper appeared in volume 37, 1982 (p. 252) of Experientia. I apologize to readers for any inconvenience caused by this duplication.

MARK W. J. FERGUSON

Even a casual glance at the two papers (available in full here and here) shows that, far from simply sharing the same data, the two papers are virtually identical. 90% of the text is the same, the pictures are the same, only the abstract and first paragraph are different.

The excuse given by Ferguson is clearly nonsense. Simultaneously submitting the same paper to two different journals is invariably considered misconduct and explicitly prohibited. For example, Nature insists that “material submitted to a Nature journal must be original and not published or submitted for publication elsewhere”.

When the matter was recently raised in the Dail by TD Clare Daly, Minister Richard Bruton was quick to defend Ferguson, listing his academic credentials and poo-pooing the notion that someone of his stature could have been involved in such behaviour.

Chief Scientific Advisor

Mark Ferguson with Taoiseach Enda Kenny meeting US politicans

Given the turmoil and controversy, the announcement that Mark Ferguson was to also take on the role of Chief Scientific Adviser to the Taoiseach came as a shock to many members of the scientific community.

In making this move Minister Richard Bruton and Junior Minister Sean Sherlock are clearly signalling their support for Ferguson in the face of unprecedented criticism of SFI’s Director General and the direction he is attempting to take the agency.

The appointment has caused a storm of criticism from Irish scientists, furious that an independent voice for science has been lost and been replaced by someone with their own agency to look after.

Looking at the 2008 Vital Topics video, it is interesting to see Ferguson’s views on “conflict-of-interest” when he was talking up Renovo:

What Now for Irish Science?

So what does all of this mean for the future of Irish science and basic research in particular? Ferguson recently compared academics to cats who you herd by moving their food bowl.

We can expect that, for the foreseeable future, all funding will be funneled through opaque selection processes into commercial schemes, whereby those who make the most extravagant claims about their potential research “impact” will be rewarded.

Meanwhile, those who do not engage in bombastic claims and flim-flam, those with the longer view, will be screened out by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists whose sole motivation is turning a buck on someone else’s ideas.

In their place,  we are supposed to attract “iconic” scientists – ones with Nobel prizes and Fields medals, no less. Mind you, given Ferguson’s embarrassing introduction of Craig Venter at the EuroScience Open Forum, below, his name may be off the list.

And when all of this nonsense runs its course, wasting millions in the process, we will have the spectacle of politicians claiming that investment in science has yielded no sizable return for the country.

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