From the Archives of Scientific Fraud – Stephen Breuning

ID-100226811Photo by 
David Castillo Dominici,

Last week I promised to present several stories about scientific fraudsters. This is the first story…

An average client, who entered a new electronics store in Rochester in November 1988, could not possibly suspect that just a few years ago the owner of the shop had been a well-known, brilliant scientist. Perfect knowledge of offered Hi-Fi equipment and top-notch, professional service – nobody could possibly think that they are dealing with a specialist in… mental retardation in children. Perhaps the business owner even had some impact on his clients’ family members?  Indeed, various degrees of cognitive delay are not that rare. Who would have imagined, that the person taking the payment for the just purchased audio system was in fact the first scientist in the world to be prosecuted for gross scientific misconduct.

On September 19th, in Federal Court in Baltimore, psychologist Stephen Breuning – accused of falsifying research results and defrauding funds from federal research grants – testifies on two cases of scientific misconduct. The third accusation of the prosecution is the obstruction of investigations conducted by National Institute of Mental Health in his workplace. The final court session is scheduled for 10th of November. Prosecutors believe that this is the first case ever where a criminal court has been involved in a case of scientific misconduct. Thirty-six year old Breuning had faced the court before on April 15th where he defended himself against charges of forging his own research results – twice. In 1983, NIMH awarded a total of over $200,000 to fund Breuning’s research grants. The NIMH Audit Committee concluded, that in the research report submitted by Breuning in May 1987, many research results financed by the institute were falsified. The research was supposed to be focused on the use of stimulants in treatment of children with mental retardation. As the result of the audit, the committee prohibited any further funding of Breuning’s research for the next 10 years, and referred the case further to the government attorney in Baltimore for investigation. According to the prosecution, Breuning was facing 10 years behind bars and a fine of $20,000. Alleviating circumstances could reduce the sentence to 5 years in prison and $250,000 fine. Assistant US Attorney Thomas Roberts said that he will also press for complete employment and research ban in the field of experimental psychology for Breuning for 10 years including injunction of $20,000 from Breuning’s remuneration that he received when working at the University of Pittsburgh, where he conducted most of alleged research. The university returned to NIMH over $163,000 of federal funds “used” by Breuning.[1]

Stephen Breuning made a rapid career in his field. It was mostly based on the research that showed promising results of using stimulating drugs to modify self-injuring behavior in children with mental retardation. At the time of his trial he was already a well-known, respected scientist in his field. His frauds were uncovered by psychologist Robert L. Sprague from the University of Illinois. Many years before the fraud was brought to daylight, Sprague – a former colleague of Breuning – had written a multi-page letter with his suspicions related to Breuning’s research work. It took five years from the moment Sprague reported misconducts in research works, until the fraudster finally faced justice. Sprague wrote about the difficulties of the entire process of investigations in a bitter article describing his “unmasking operation.” In his opinion, regarding the myth that science is beautifully self-correcting he says:

The science mechanism either refuses to adjudicate fraud or is very, very sluggish. I`ve been at Illinois for 25 years. I`m a full professor, a research professor at a major university, and I almost didn`t get the job done.[2]

The fact that the case involved a renowned and famous psychologist caused significant turmoil, have drawn a lot of attention and eventually resulted in public condemnation of Breuning’s actions. The US Attorney Breckenridge L. Wilcox stated that the court’s decision in this case must issue a clear warning to all scientists, that research frauds and misconducts will not be tolerated. Sprague officially announced that he expects a heavy sentence and that he cannot imagine a probation for Breuning, as there should be no empathy towards those who think of “cutting the corners in science.”

The severity of his criticism was additionally emphasized by the fact that Breuning’s research work had a significant impact on mentally retarded children – an extremely vulnerable, defenseless group of patients. Furthermore, some people engaged in this case pointed out that Breuning destroyed careers of at least a few of his assistants. They were engaged in projects that would never allow them to progress their careers, and when the case was over they were left without any significant scientific achievements.

Why did he do it? Robert Sprague assumed that Breuning was guided by “Ordinary, human lust for power, prestige, fame and money. For the same reason people embezzle money from banks, lie as witnesses in courts or cheat on the stock market.”[3]

Stephen E. Breuning was sentenced for 60 days in a halfway house and five years of probation period. The court also ordered him to pay back $11,352, serve 250 hours of community service and abstain from psychological research for at least the period of his probation. Breuning agreed not to undertake any work as a psychologist for at least ten years – just as the prosecution wanted. He became the world’s first scientist accused and sentenced for scientific misconduct and falsifying research data. Scientific community received this verdict as “far too soft.” Some even argued that it would even encourage similar transgressions in the future. After serving his time, Breuning opened an electronics store near his home in Rochester. Today he runs his private counseling practice, or at least this is what information found on the Internet suggests[4].


[1] Bales, J. (1988). Breuning pleads guilty in scientific fraud case. Science, 242, 27-28.

[2] Sprague, R. L. (1993). Whistleblowing: A very unpleasant avocation. Ethics & Behavior, 3, 103-133.

[3] Bales, J. Breuning pleads guilty… Ed. Cited.

[4] I.e.:, retrieved 7 December 2013.



3 responses to “From the Archives of Scientific Fraud – Stephen Breuning

  1. Korpela, K. (2010). How long does it take for the scientific literature to purge itself of fraudulent material?: the Breuning case revisited. Current Medical Research & Opinion, 26, 843-847. Published online 08 February 2010; doi:10.1185/03007991003603804

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