Institute sorry over findings of professor's misconduct

·3-min read

A leading medical institute has apologised for not acting sooner to stop a top cancer researcher's misconduct following a damning external review.

The independent Lander review found Professor Mark Smyth was "a bully who used his reputation, status and power to intimidate" and avoid scrutiny at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.

It also found that whistleblowers who raised concerns with his scientific methods "had not been afforded appropriate care, respect or credibility".

Following the release on Tuesday of extracts of the review, helmed by retired Federal Court judge Bruce Lander KC, the Brisbane-based institute said in a statement it had since undergone comprehensive reforms.

It said that while findings showed it did not know about Prof Smyth's misconduct during his employment from 2013 until he was stood down in 2020, it acknowledged it ought to have known.

"While the findings relating to these historical complaints make sobering reading for the institute, we are reassured that the independent review found that the risk of this sort of conduct happening today and not being acted upon is greatly reduced," QIMR Berghofer Council chairman Arun Sharma said on Wednesday.

"Council identified the need for significant reform as soon as we became aware of the allegations and we left no stone unturned in proactively commissioning the independent review to fully understand whether the reforms already being implemented would drive the necessary improvements."

The review found no one in authority, including council members, knew that Prof Smyth engaged in research misconduct, but Mr Lander identified "barriers" at the institute that prevented his misconduct being detected sooner.

These included an "imbalance of power" between Prof Smyth, who was the most highly cited immunologist in the country, and other researchers, assistants and students.

Another barrier was the culture that some researchers were "stars" who had to be supported.

The review also found several whistleblowers were not given enough support when they tried to raise concerns.

Mr Lander said he thought a number of people suspected Prof Smyth fabricated data at QIMR Berghofer, partly because he could not have spent enough time in the animal lab to carry out the experiments he claimed he did.

The institute first set up an independent investigation when it received allegations of misconduct in September 2020, and Prof Smyth was stood down.

That panel, chaired by former Queensland Court of Appeal judge Robert Gotterson KC, found Prof Smyth had seriously breached the Australian Code for Responsible Conduct of Research.

The institute then commissioned the independent Lander review.

The Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission has also been investigating.

The Lander review found QIMR Berghofer had acted "expeditiously and laboriously" to improve its governance, culture and processes for dealing with cases of misconduct.

It had also overhauled its human resources department and changed its leadership.

The institute had worked to identify publications that might be affected by Prof Smyth's conduct and audited grant applications for any that were based on "fabricated, falsified or unreliable data".

All 25 recommendations made by Mr Lander were being implemented, the institute said.