Nature on the Attack

Unsupported allegation of funding misuse deemed "a fair account and a worthwhile story"

In a recent issue of Nature (Volume 442, pp. 230-231, 20 July 2006), Eugenie Samuel Reich reports S. Putterman's belief that Rusi Taleyarkhan, leader of the group that developed the bubble fusion process, used DARPA funding for a particular experiment published in Physical Review Letters, implying, the article appears to suggest, 'misuse of federal dollars', a serious allegation. The five points listed by Nature in support of this position are consistent with a not unreasonable alternative to Putterman's view (see below), where the question of misuse of funds simply does not arise. This supports Taleyarkhan's assertion (quoted in the article), that Putterman's interpretation of how the work was funded is "off-base and wrong".

Thus it seems that prior to the Nature article, while the research itself had come in for criticism in some quarters, there had never been any suggestion that research funds could have been misused. In the absence of any clear grounds on which such an allegation could have been supported, the Nature article did not state explicitly that funding misuse had taken place either, but its juxtaposition of the otherwise mysterious reference to misuse of federal dollars, and a box headed 'Where did the money go?', suggests nevertheless a clear intent to create in the reader's mind an impression that there had indeed been misuse of funds.

With this latest episode, Nature's interest in finding points with which to attack Taleyarkhan (this is by no means the first hostile article there has been in the journal) has far outstepped the bounds of credible journalism. Asked to provide justification for the serious allegations implicitly engineered in the article, the journal has come up so far only with the following non-response (further correspondence with the journal can be found here: link 1, link 2):

"We stand by [our article] and believe it was a fair account of the matter and a worthwhile story to run -- the fate of $250,000 of public money is clearly in the public interest".

As yet, there has been no retraction of the implicit allegation of funding misuse; seemingly, Nature's attitude is: "if it's a good story, who cares if there are problems with the details?". It is unusual, to say the least, for a journal such as Nature to take such a cavalier attitude to such matters.

Brian Josephson
July 30, 2006 (revised Aug. 19, 2006).

Putterman's flawed "case"

The following is the text of the published allegation and its inadequate support. The facts listed by Nature (see the following), in an accusatory box headed "Where did the money go?", do show that some people who have at some time worked on the PRL experiment (Taleyarkhan, Cho, Xu) have also at some time received DARPA funding. That would be unproblematic, and not at all the same as what Nature appears to want the reader to infer from the listed facts, viz. DARPA funding being illegitimately used for the PRL experiment.
Note also (in regard to item 4 of the list) that more than one experiment was demonstrated to the programme manager on the occasion alluded to in that item.

The DARPA grant awarded to Seth Putterman and Rusi Taleyarkhan for work on bubble fusion began in March 2005, and Taleyarkhan submitted a paper to Physical Review Letters (PRL) that September. Taleyarkhan insists no DARPA money was used for that work, but after checking accounts at Purdue University, where Taleyarkhan is based, Putterman believes otherwise (Nature's list of supposedly supportive points, inadequate for the reasons indicated above, follows):