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Story Feature: Legal Aid for Whistleblowers

Issue #70

Data, Numbers

On 5 March 2024, Holly Else wrote a post for ScienceInsider called: ”Science Integrity Sleuths Welcome Legal Aid Fund for Whistleblowers”. The post discusses how “[a] Silicon Valley investor has pledged $1 million to help pay the legal costs of scientists being sued for flagging fraudulent research.”¹ The need for such a fund is clear because of the legal pushback by people accused of fraud. Lawsuits against whistleblowers are easy to start under US law. A well-publicised example is the lawsuit against the authors of Data Colada, which “... raised concerns about the integrity of the data in four papers co-authored by Harvard University business researcher Francesca Gino. Within months Gino sued for defamation Nelson, Simmons, Simonsohn, and Harvard, which had investigated her work, claiming $25 million in damages.”¹   

One of the problems with such lawsuits is the punishing effect of the costs of a legal defence: “Lawyers for the bloggers have suggested their defense could cost up to $600,000.” This is why the fund matters: “Yun-Fang Juan, an engineer and data scientist by background, hopes the new Scientific Integrity Fund—the first of its kind—will make speaking up about wrongdoing less intimidating.”¹ Elisabeth Bik comments: “‘As scientists, we need to be able to ask questions and raise concerns about other researchers’ work, without the risk of being sued, or going bankrupt because we have to hire a lawyer, ...’”¹ The fund is not large: “Juan started the fund with a $250,000 donation from her family charity, the Ewcy Foundation, and has pledged a total of $1 million over the next 4 years.”¹ The fund has an advisory Board that will help to decide who should receive support, and the fund “will accept applications from whistleblowers who made evidence-based claims in good faith and are now facing a concrete legal threat. It will provide grants of up to $25,000 to help researchers get legal advice or administrative help at the initial stages of legal action.”¹ 

It is easy to underestimate the effect of lawsuits against critics. “‘Undergoing a frivolous lawsuit can be a scary, isolating, and potentially financially ruinous experience,’ says Chelsea Polis…”¹ The makers of a device she criticised sued her for a million dollars, but “... federal judges ultimately dismissed the case against her…”¹ She had the courage and means to fight. Many do not.

 

1: Else, Holly. ‘Science Integrity Sleuths Welcome Legal Aid Fund for Whistleblowers’, 5 March 2024. https://www.science.org/content/article/science-integrity-sleuths-welcome-legal-aid-fund-whistleblowers.

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