Field of Nightmares


California's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory was home to a prominent piece of federally funded junk science. As a result, the lab may be forced to repay more than $800,000 in grant money. The incident involves researcher Robert P. Liburdy, who allegedly falsified some of the earliest findings that electromagnetic fields may cause cancer.

The data, published in two medical journals in 1992, purported to show the first plausible biological mechanism linking electromagnetic field exposure to cancer and other diseases; the reports helped fuel the widespread though unsubstantiated belief that power lines cause health problems (see "Shock Journalism," January 1995). Acting on a tip from a postdoctoral student working with him in 1994, lab administrators alerted the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 1995. In June 1999, after a two-year investigation, the ORI reported that Liburdy had committed "scientific misconduct" by "intentionally falsifying and fabricating" data. The data were used to secure more federal funding.

The 51-year-old Liburdy, who resigned from the lab in March after 15 years there, agreed in May to retract three data graphs and to accept a three-year ban on receiving federal research money. He claims that he has taken these steps only to avoid an expensive legal fight. But subsequent investigation into the effects of electromagnetic fields has yielded little evidence to support Liburdy's research.