Love in the lab of the gods

They were the beautiful couple of German academia, he the doyen of the scientific establishment, she his brilliant and ambitious assistant - until the fallout from a lovers' tiff exposed them as a couple of fraudsters.
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There will be no stampede for the chairs vacated last week by two of the most talented people in cancer research. For the labs deserted in a hurry by Professor Marion Brach and her erstwhile mentor and companion Professor Friedhelm Herrmann are in disgrace, caught up in the most elaborate fraud perpetrated by a scientist on German soil.

Prof Herrmann, not so much a pillar of the establishment as its very embodiment, is accused of systematic forgery, of faking experiments, and of defrauding public institutions to the tune of possibly millions of marks. The 47-year-old department head from Ulm University denies the charges, but was suspended from his job last week.

Prof Brach, aged 37, who until last Wednesday was director of Lubeck University's Institute of Molecular Medicine, has admitted forging results for four papers. She claims that she was only following orders - Prof Herrmann's.

At the last count, the scientific commission investigating the couple's work were poring over 32 of their papers. Their evidence is raising awkward questions about the way science is run, and not just in Germany. Did no one have an inkling that Prof Herrmann, an extraordinarily prolific researcher with more than 300 publications to his name, was somehow doping his performance? The conclusion reached so far is that many colleagues were indeed aware - or at least harboured suspicions, but were too frightened to rat on their omnipotent boss.

Free of the shackles of scrutiny, the couple could apparently do as they pleased. They had been together for a decade - he the all-conquering genius, and she the ambitious protegee. After a spell at Harvard, they returned to Germany in triumph, and moved in 1992 to a laboratory in Berlin. By then Prof Herrmann was on every committee that mattered, had a chair at the Free University and a research team of 20 scientists at the city's Max Delbruck Centre. Dr Brach, as she then was, was one of his four group leaders, well on her way towards a professorship at her tender age.

They were at the forefront of cancer research. World-beating papers were rolling off their assembly line, competitors were being pipped regularly to the post. Success bred success. Prof Herrmann's influence grew in direct proportion to the length of his list of publications. As a man of stature, he sat on editorial boards, and was often asked by influential journals to vet the unpublished works of his colleagues.

The anonymous reviewer wields immense power. He or she can reject a work, rubbish its findings or methods, thus relegating years of research to an inferior journal, and its author to oblivion. But Prof Herrmann did not waste his energy on petty vendettas. Rather than thwarting his competitors' ideas, he simply lifted them from their unpublished work. It is at this point that his genius shines through. To survive in science, scientists must publish a lot of papers; ergo they must have a lot of original results. But getting results from experiments takes time. You cannot forge them, because someone else will always try to repeat the experiment - remember Cold Fusion? - and woe betide the researcher whose work cannot be duplicated.

So Prof Herrmann plucked the results out of the unpublished works of his rivals, and constructed hypothetical experiments around them, which of course were never carried out. As a powerful figure, he could get his sham paper published long before the work of his hapless competitor would complete its odyssey of reviews. Brilliant! For this flash of inspiration, he should have been awarded a Nobel prize.

And he might well have been, had the golden couple not fallen out. In 1996, Prof Herrmann got an even grander job in Ulm, and Dr Brach was ready to follow him as before. But later that year, Dr Brach's long hard work was finally rewarded with a professorship and the irresistible job offer from Lubeck.

Prof Herrmann, by Marion Brach's account, took his girlfriend's departure badly. She says he put all kinds of obstacles in her way, at one point even locking her out of her own computer. Finally, in desperation, he played the trump card: "If you leave I'll tell everybody about the experiments you faked." She was scared and upset, so she confided in a colleague, who promptly spilled the beans to the authorities.

An inquiry followed, discreet at first. Prof Herrmann said he had known nothing of the forgeries published under his name. Prof Brach retorted that not only had her boss known, he had ordered her to tinker with the evidence. Thus was constructed, for instance, the computerised image of a radiogram for a paper published in 1995 in the prestigious Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Forging experiments was only a minor pastime, however. Prof Herrmann's colleagues, no longer mesmerised by his air of invulnerability, have in recent weeks become aware of more sinister schemes. The whisper now is about alchemy of sorts: the science of turning power into money.

As one of the greatest members of the great and the good, it was Prof Herrmann's job to vet applications for grants submitted to the German Research Council. According to the commission of inquiry, Prof Herrmann stole the ideas of a Dutch scientist, turned down the application, and resubmitted the same research plan under his own name to a private foundation. That scam, allegedly one of several, made his empire DM260,000 (pounds 90,000) richer at a stroke.

The scale of deception has stunned the closely-knit scientific community in Germany and abroad, provoking expressions of rage from normally mild- mannered scholars. "He's obviously a bastard," said one senior scientist.

None of what's coming - endless inquiries and possibly a trial - will enhance the already declining reputation of science in Germany. Research is run by self-selecting cliques in most countries, but nowhere is the hierarchy as rigid as in Germany. Professors at German universities are more powerful, harder to dislodge and less accountable than their British or American counterparts.

But the real fault, the Germans say, lies with the "publish-or-perish" ethos of the age, which infects researchers with verbal diarrhoea in the feverish race for scarce funds. The journals know that the vast majority of papers they publish serve only to adorn grant applications. They run unquestioningly the works of the big beasts of the jungle, thus enhancing the powerful, and keeping the powerless meek.

The biggest scandal of the Herrmann affair is that the fraud, much of it as transparent as a test-tube filled with water, could have been spotted by the pre-eminent scientific journals of the world. It never wasn

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