Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, one among Germany’s high psychologists and an professional in treating anxiousness and phobias, just isn’t shy about selling himself. His e-mail signature says he’s a “highly cited researcher,” and with good purpose. He has virtually 1000 articles to his title, in line with the Web of Science, and has racked up practically 70,000 citations. He is an editor of Germany’s diagnostic and statistical guide of psychological issues—the bible of medical psychology—and till 2017, he led a psychology analysis institute on the Dresden University of Technology (TU Dresden).
Yet his repute is below hearth after an investigation into one among his research discovered proof of manipulation—and elaborate efforts to cowl up the misdeed. The investigation report, turned over to TU Dresden in February and obtained by Science, additionally reveals Wittchen intimidated whistleblowers and pressured senior TU Dresden employees. The Federal Joint Committee (G-BA), a public well being group, is suing the corporate it paid to do the examine. And the Dresden public prosecutor’s workplace is now investigating felony fees associated to the examine.
Wittchen was one of many high epidemiologists of psychiatry, and TU Dresden “has benefited greatly from him,” says Jürgen Margraf, a psychologist at Ruhr University, Bochum, who has collaborated with Wittchen. “If the commission’s findings turn out to be true, they are very disturbing for the entire field, and that would also have an impact on TU Dresden.” Thomas Pollmächer, director of the psychological well being heart at Ingolstadt Hospital, says the allegations are “startling.” He worries about different attainable irregularities in Wittchen’s in depth publication document. “Some time bombs may be ticking,” he says.
The examine in query was a €2.4 million survey of staffing ranges and high quality at practically 100 German psychiatric services. Working for TU Dresden’s Association for Knowledge and Technology Transfer (GWT), Wittchen was the principal investigator of the hassle, which aimed to look at workloads on the clinics and inform authorities laws.
But in February 2019, German media reported allegations, stemming from whistleblowers near the survey challenge, that study data had been fabricated. The college launched a proper investigation, led by regulation professor Hans-Heinrich Trute.
After 2 years of labor, the fee, in its last report, has discovered that solely 73 of 93 psychiatric clinics had been truly surveyed. For the others, the report says, Wittchen instructed researchers to repeat information from one clinic and apply them to a different. “The violations were intentional, not negligent,” the report says. “Wittchen wanted to appear more successful than he was.”
Wittchen instructed Science he wouldn’t reply detailed questions “because they are the issue of legal proceedings.” But he denies any wrongdoing and says the examine in query was “scientifically correct.”
The investigation report additionally reveals how Wittchen sought to keep away from repercussions. In April 2019, he despatched an e-mail to Hans Müller-Steinhagen, president of TU Dresden on the time, warning him to “stay out of the project” and cease the investigation, as a result of in any other case there could be a “national political earthquake.” “I would like to warn you … once again personally and confidentially that you are taking an extreme risk here,” Wittchen wrote within the e-mail.
The two whistleblowers, junior members of GWT, confronted strain, too, in line with emails obtained by Science. Wittchen requested GWT’s director to contemplate dismissing the whistleblowers—in an effort to lower your expenses. In one other doc, he accused them of being chargeable for the examine irregularities. “I will … defend myself with all legal means against this mess,” he wrote to a bunch of survey researchers that included the whistleblowers. According to the fee report, Wittchen even gave the 2 whistleblowers a prewritten letter to signal, wherein they might retract all accusations and apologize.
Investigators discovered indications that Wittchen manipulated paperwork to cowl his tracks, together with presentation slides, emails, and presumably even signatures. He has “shown a willingness to mislead the investigation from the beginning by means of deception and manipulation,” the report says. “If these observations were true, they would be within the realm of criminal sanctions.”
For his half, Wittchen says the issues with the survey had been an harmless mistake. In a 70-page denial included within the investigation report, he claims the duplicated information within the survey had been statistically appropriate and easily not defined correctly.
Although the report targeted on the alleged scientific misconduct, it additionally contains hints of attainable corruption. It notes allegations that Wittchen employed his daughter within the challenge for about 2 years—though the opposite employees by no means noticed her doing any work on it. Wittchen’s daughter declined to touch upon the allegations.
The fee finds fault with TU Dresden and GWT for not sufficiently defending the whistleblowers, who remained subordinate to Wittchen through the investigation. When one of many whistleblowers requested GWT for a job reference, the request ended up with Wittchen, who gave him a poor reference.
The fee additionally criticizes Katja Beesdo-Baum, a behavioral epidemiologist at TU Dresden and longtime colleague of Wittchen’s who was deputy head of the survey challenge. A number of days after the allegations grew to become public in February 2019, Beesdo-Baum referred to as a unprecedented assembly of the institute. There, workers had been reminded of their obligation to take care of secrecy, says a professor who was current on the time, in line with the report. The workers “had the feeling of being muzzled,” he says. Beesdo-Baum says the fee didn’t accuse her of misconduct and that her position within the affair will likely be mentioned internally.
Wittchen gave up his professorship at TU Dresden in 2017 when he reached an age restrict. In 2017, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich employed him as a visiting professor, however a spokesperson says it suspended Wittchen’s contract this month, after studying of the allegations. Last month, the college deleted the 2017 press launch saying its hiring of Wittchen. In an announcement, the German Psychological Society says it considers the allegations within the report so “very grave” that it has convened a courtroom of honor that might revoke Wittchen’s membership. GWT issued an announcement saying that in its 25 years of existence, throughout 1000’s of research, it has by no means encountered “comparable irregularities.”
Meanwhile, a TU Dresden spokesperson says the college is investigating extra allegations of corruption. It is evaluating attainable sanctions in opposition to Wittchen and expects to decide in mid-April, on the earliest. The Dresden public prosecutor’s workplace has additionally launched a felony investigation. The workplace says that for “tactical reasons” it isn’t disclosing particulars of the investigation however that it’ll “take some time.”
This story was produced in a collaboration with BuzzFeed News Germany.