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As university drama, the case of brain scientist Milena Penkowa is better than fiction. New fans can start here
It has dead mothers suddenly turning up at receptions, powerful men enchanted by charming women, forged documents, raids by plain-clothed fraud detectives, spin doctors, and a student assistant that cried for help, but was not heard.
If not the biggest case of scientific fraud in world history, it is probably the most complicated one. It has shaken the University of Copenhagen, has made university politics an issue in the upcoming Danish national election, and has had staff and students clicking the refresh button on their preferred media sites for months on end.
Like most ‘for dummies’ guides this one will actually make you the expert.
So here it is! We promise you it won’t take more than ten minutes…
Milena Penkowa (the correct pronunciation is Pen-KO-va, but PEN-ko-va has become acceptable, and among non-Danes even versions like ‘Melanie’ Pin-OH-ka have been heard) is a neuro-scientist that has been accused of scientific fraud, faking documents and embezzling funds.
Penkowa has a Bulgarian mother and a Danish father. As a young girl both she and her sister made the Danish national team riding ponies. She won gold at the Nordic championships when she was 13.
In 1986 Milena’s dad was arrested, charged and convicted for the theft of furniture and TVs, which he had systematically stolen from summer houses and installed in his own to-rent summer houses. After the conviction, her parents were divorced and Milena lived with her mother and sister.
In 1997, in her early twenties, she co-authored a letter-to-the-editor to the daily newspaper Information complaining about the laziness of her fellow students:
»For many students, if they worked hard, and did the necessary readings, then they would be clearly ready for their exams. And they would not need to be nervous. Nervousness is fundamentally based on the realization that you have not done enough,« she wrote.
Since then, Penkowa launched herself into a career that left her fellow students looking like dazed lab rats after a sedative injection.
As a neuro-scientist, she is the epitomy of 2000’s boomtime optimism. Darling of the press, Penkowa is a new kind of assertive woman scientist, with her red sports car, and a daily regimen of 5 am fitness workouts.
Respected for her communication skills, she brings abstract neuro-science down to earth. As in this recent article in the University Post, where she talks about the new trend of brain doping for exams.
We, the audience, know now, however, that by 2003, her career was perilously close to derailment.
Experts, who refereed her doctoral dissertation, dismissed it, doubting the validity of her claim to have used 750 laboratory rats.
Enter the next main character in the drama: Ralf Hemmingsen, who is now Rector at the University of Copenhagen.
In 2003 he was Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences. He decided to let new experts look at her dissertation again. A Swedish and Norwegian scientist then looked at Penkowa’s original results and methods, and accepted them.
In a key quote, the new referees said of the original referees that they »did not have the necessary will or ability to appreciate the methods or material.«
Let’s take a small step back. Referees are looking at the first dissertation in 2003-2004, and have asked for more documentation from Penkowa on the lab rats. She replies to them with this note:
»I wanted to respond as fast as possible, but I respond today Wednesday 28.5.2003. I have not been able to do this earlier because of a very unfortunate family incident. Wednesday 14 May my mother and sister crashed in a car, and I have since then spent a lot of time at the hospital, and at the funeral.«
But at Penkowa’s doctoral dissertation party in 2006, where the former Dean Ralf Hemmingsen was present, lo and behold, mother and sister were present too, and very much alive and well.
For some strange reason no suspicions were aroused, either in 2003 or at subsequent functions were the dead family members appeared.
In Penkowa’s documentation, the rat experiments from Spain were documented with company logos, the name RRRC Pharmaceuticals, telephone numbers and contact info to match.
Ralf Hemmingsen claims he called these phone numbers.
How, whether, and by whom, this call was answered is still one of the mysteries of the case, as the drama unfolds, as no transcripts of the call are available. But the University of Copenhagen’s legal advisers Kammeradvokaten and the Board of Executives, said recently, on 22 March, that they have no reason to doubt that the calls were made.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
It is 2004, and Ralf Hemmingsen and his two vice-deans accepted Penkowa’s documentation, and apologised to her. Penkowa edited her original dissertation, this time without the controversial rat studies, and submitted it in 2005. This was refereed by three new experts and she successfully defended it in 2006.
Let’s now jump ahead to 2009.
At a ceremony in the stately Glyptoteket building, Milena Penkowa was awarded the prestigious Elite Researcher prize by Crown Princess Mary. Apart from the honour and the royal handshake, the prize included a DKK 1.1 million cash award.
For the prize, Milena Penkowa described herself as a »competitive person, I love to be challenged and pressured. I see opportunities and needs for optimising everything around me, not only my research.«
It has later come forward that Penkowa wrote her own recommendation for the prize. Claims that strings were pulled by Minister of Science Helge Sander or Rector Ralf Hemmingsen to make sure she got the prize have been vehemently denied by both.
Milena Penkowa was subsequently hired as a professor by the University of Copenhagen.
It’s now time to formally introduce the audience to the character of Helge Sander, who was Minister of Science from 2001-2010. As Minister he was behind a controversial reform of Danish Universities called ‘from thought to invoice’, which hoped to turn academia into good business.
The reforms removed professors and scientific personnel from decisions and put more power into the hands of an external board with a majority of members appointed by the Ministry. He admits to friendship with Milena Penkowa, after she helped his family during a medical emergency.
Now, Penkowa had repeatedly had funding applications rejected by the Research Council for Health and Illness FSS. Then, in 2009, Minister of Science Helge Sander forwarded 30 questions from an anonymous source to the Research Council. The questions indirectly accused the Council of favouring Mette Rosenkilde, a competitor to Milena Penkowa for a professor chair.
»We were not in any doubt that it was Milena Penkowa who had formulated the questions as punishment for not getting any of the money,« one of the members of the council later said.
Helge Sander has refused to answer who it was that formulated the 30 questions, only recently claiming that the 30 questions came from a ‘circle of scientists’ , thereby implying that they were not, or not solely, authored by Milena Penkowa.
In a television interview, Penkowa has denied that she was the original author of the questions.
Penkowa was suspended from the University of Copenhagen in March 2010. Experts had analysed tissue samples from previous experiments and voiced suspicions of her falsifying results.
This scientific case is now being evaluated by the Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), but it will probably take years for their conclusions to be made.
According to Milena Penkowa, all the accusations of fraudulent test results are false, and simply due to her colleagues’ jealousy.
The University of Copenhagen has asked for all of her scientific work to be re-examined by the independent Free Research Council DFF.
This introduces us to one over-arching theme in the drama, the tall poppy syndrome: a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented or attacked because their achievements have elevated them above their peers. Danish society is claimed, by its critics, to suffer from the tall poppy syndrome, or ‘janteloven’ as it is called in Danish.
Penkowa and her defenders imply the tall poppy syndrome when explaining the accusations against her. More important for us, the astute drama critics, is interpreting the Rector’s and the Minister’s motivations. Maybe they spent energy originally defending Penkowa, as a defence against what they perceived as the tall poppy syndrome in action against her.
According to media, Penkowa used research funding from IMK Almene Fond in 2005 to finance lawyer’s bills, clothes, travelling and restaurant visits. The University of Copenhagen has paid back DKK 2 million to the fund, and forwarded a DKK 276,000 lawyer’s bill to Penkowa.
It is now 2010.
Enter, stage right, a group of 58 scientists who call for an independent investigation into the University of Copenhagen’s role in the case.
It is the first in a long chain of petitions, calls for outside inquests, probes, and even investigations of investigations, as scientists, students and stakeholders fret over the fall-out from a case that has bogged down the University of Copenhagen in a mire of allegations and aspersions for more than a year.
With the case unfolding day by day, and rumours spreading rapidly that Rector Ralf Hemmingsen had some kind of intimate relationship to Milena Penkowa: Rector decided to make a statement. No. Not Bill Clinton’s »I did not have sex with that woman«. But »I have never met Penkowa in private.«
The Board of Executives of the University of Copenhagen supported him, and set in motion an investigation by Kammeradvokaten, the Danish government and state institutions’ own legal counsel, to find out whether administrative procedures were followed: They were, according to the Board, which supports Rector’s actions. If they were, they were the wrong procedures says a critical Minister of Science, that responded by putting the University under tighter government scrutiny.
The Kammeradvokaten inquiry is impartial, argue supporters of the University’s Board and management. No it’s not, say their critics.
Let us now look at one of the victim characters: Kristian Kolind, the former student assistant of Milena Penkowa who, according to the ruling of one of the court cases in the issue, was made a scapegoat for Penkowa’s embezzlement.
In late 2008, his boss Penkowa tells the police that he, not she, fiddled the books to get hold of Penkowa’s mislaid funds. But Kolind is able to prove his innocence, and the police believe him.
The student Kolind sends a letter to University management, making them aware of the false accusations by Penkowa, who at this time is still at the peak of her career. Ignoring Kolind’s warning, the University tells him that the facts are not yet clear in the case.
Subsequent to this warning by Kolind, in February 2009, Milena Penkowa is given the prestigious ‘Elite Research’ prize, and in late autumn 2009, Milena Penkowa is appointed professor at the Faculty of Health Sciences.
March 2010, the public prosecutor officially informs the University of Copenhagen about the case. According to an official at the public prosecutor’s office, the University had only asked for information about the case immediately prior to this date.
Rector Ralf Hemmingsen has apologised on behalf of the University for the treatment of the student, but recently stated on Danish national TV that »when she was put forward as a candidate for the Elite Research prize, we did not know of this case, or this indictment«.
Student council representatives have since then criticised management for not taking any notice of Kolind’s warning simply for the reason that he is »only« a student.
Treatment like this tends »to make students keep their mouths shut, and here Kristian Kolind is not the only case,« said a critic.
In a recent op-ed in the daily newspaper Politiken, the father of student assistant Kolind has entered the fray, calling it dubious that university management has cleared itself of all charges of nepotism and betrayal.
As in good reality TV, the media themselves become characters in the drama. They can either play a force for the good, as intrepid investigators, or for the bad, as manipulators who will do anything for a good story.
First for the good. In a dramatic scene, reporters from the University Post and Jyllands-Posten were denied access to the Faculty of Health Sciences, when detectives from the fraud squad searched Penkowa’s old offices.
And now the bad. Danish national TV journalist Otto Schelin made a TV report about what a wonderful scientist Penkowa is. She knows how to pay him: He is said to have been given a valuable VIP parking spot under the same Faculty of Health Sciences. Another person, who claimed to be a journalist for DR, turned out actually to be a friend of Penkowa.
Just as the dust is about to settle, it whirls up again as each stone is overturned in the case.
Critical critics say that the Penkowa case is not just one person’s fraud and forgery. It is the ultimate outcome of a reform of the Universities Law in 2003 which has had »…all researchers and research areas fight each other to attract research funding, media coverage and students. An effective strategy is to press arguments and results to the limit, and some times past the limit,« as philosophy professor Vincent F. Hendricks puts it. He himself is a recipient of the Elite Research prize.
So there it is!
Nobody knows whether the University of Copenhagen will suffer long-term damage to its reputation, but for those of us who are not directly involved: It sure is good fun while it lasts.
We reckon it has taken you eight minutes and twenty-nine seconds to read this: You follow the story yourself from here!
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