McMaster professor removed from Canada 150 Chairs website, funding halted after investigation

December 1, 2021
McMaster University puts ecology professor on leave after investigation into a 'series of concerns'
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A trio of federal funding agencies have suspended payments supporting a high-profile McMaster University professor through the prestigious Canada 150 Research Chairs program after he was put on leave following an investigation.

A representative of the program confirmed on Tuesday that Jonathan Pruitt’s online research profile on the government’s website had also been pulled down.

The coveted chair positions were meant to boost Canada’s reputation for excellence in science and innovation by investing more than $117 million to attract top-tier researchers and scholars from around the world.

Pruitt, an evolutionary ecologist who McMaster described as an “internationally recognized” academic, managed to land one of the sought-after seats.

But now he’s been wiped from the program’s website and the list of chairholders.

The change came after McMaster notified the program about a change in Pruitt’s status, according to a statement sent to CBC on behalf of the Canada 150 Research Chairs program.

“As a result, payments to support the Chairholder and their research profile have been suspended temporarily pending further notice from McMaster,” it read.

“The Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat is also aware of the allegations of breaches of policies and take these matters seriously.”

Pruitt did not respond to requests for comment sent to his McMaster email address.

He was put on paid administrative leave in November after an investigation the university said was sparked by a “series of concerns” raised internally and externally concerning a “most serious matter.”

McMaster has not supplied any specific details on those concerns, but did say the investigation took place under the university’s policies, including its research integrity policy.

The Hamilton Spectator previously reported some scientific journals and academic colleagues raised issues with some of his data, which led to academic articles being retracted.

Concerns raised about data manipulation

Nicholas DiRienzo was one of the academics who worked with Pruitt and later saw their research retracted.

That led to a stressful time spending “hundreds of hours exploring data, writing reports, working with editors,” in an effort to do what “we could to correct the record on papers we were directly involved in and access to data on,” he previously told CBC.

DiRienzo has called for McMaster to be more transparent about its investigation and findings.

He described news that Pruitt had been put on leave as a “relief” and said the university should have taken that step a year ago.

“Multiple papers had been retracted across multiple journals,” DiRienzo wrote in an email. “All those retractions required us to deeply demonstrate that he manipulated data.”

Manipulating, changing or omitting data and findings is considered research misconduct under McMaster’s policy.

A finding of research misconduct can result in consequences ranging from a letter of concern to sanctions including withdrawing research privileges, suspension or dismissal.

No updates on investigation

Pruitt joined McMaster in 2018, coming from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

His work focused on the “collective traits of different animal societies” — including ants, wasps and spiders — and how those traits affect their survival.

McMaster spokesperson Wade Hemsworth confirmed the university had alerted the government funders that Pruitt had been put on leave.

“We continue to discuss the funding implications with the Canada 150 Chair program,” he said. 

“The complaints at the heart of this investigation are, fortunately, rare and they are not unique to McMaster,” he added when asked whether the investigation had any impact on the university’s reputation.

“We have strong policies in place and these are important in safeguarding and reinforcing the university’s reputation for integrity in all aspects of research.”

Hemsworth said there were no updates on the investigation and arrangements have been made so the students who were working with Pruitt can continue their studies.

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