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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Chernobyl Nuclear Accident 25 Years Later

Scientific meltdown at Chernobyl?

Twenty years after the Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine, radiation is still hammering the region's insect, spider, and bird populations.

At least that's what Reuters and the BBC reported last week based on a paper published in the journal Biology Letters by ecologists Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina and Anders Møller of the University of Paris-Sud. For the past 10 years, the duo has been running transects through the region counting wildlife and measuring radiation levels with dosimeters.

"We wanted to ask the question: Are there more or fewer animals in the contaminated areas," Moller told Reuters. "Clearly there were fewer."

But at least one scientist formerly associated with the team is questioning the new research. Sergey Gaschak, a researcher at the Chernobyl Center in Ukraine, told the BBC that he drew "opposite conclusions" from the same data the group collected on birds. This might seem like little more than blunt criticism, but I knew that Møller's research ethics had previously been called into question.

In 2003, the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty ruled that Møller had fabricated data in a 1998 paper on oak leaves while he was still based in Denmark. A subsequent investigation by the national research agency in France, where Møller currently lives, proved inconclusive. But while doing research for a 2007 profile of Møller that I was writing for The Scientist magazine, I interviewed many researchers who claimed that Møller's fabrications extended to the bird studies for which he is best known. At the time, Møller told me that his publication rate had declined substantially since the misconduct charges were made public, but a quick look at his publication record shows the prolific ecologist cranked out nearly 30 studies in 2008.

To find out more, I asked Gaschak to clarify his critique of the Chernobyl bird study in which he was directly involved. He says the research was flawed from the get-go, starting with the study design. The reason: researchers selected study sites that varied in radiation levels, but they failed to control for important differences in habitat vegetation, which would affect bird distributions.

Gaschak notes that he collected the raw bird data in the Red Forest, the highly contaminated region that surrounds the power plant, but when he saw Møller's analysis before publication it contained "quite unexpected results." He also doubts that the team could have obtained the volume of data they have based on the time they spent in Chernobyl.

Gaschak, however, was unwilling to specify precisely which numbers he felt were most suspect because he had already "wasted a lot of time on Møller & Mousseau." He did say that he once questioned Mousseau about Møller's methods but didn't get any straight answers. Instead, he says, Mousseau was "irritated" by his queries and eventually he and Moller "avoided any contact" with him.

"They have an idea to show by any means that radiation has exclusively negative effects," Gaschak says, "That's it. Truth is not their target."

Mousseau denies Gaschak's charges, claiming that Gaschak's interpretation has been colored by his own self-interest.

"Sergey has been struggling for the last 20 years to maintain gainful employment," Mousseau says, noting that Gaschak is determined to preserve the Chernobyl zone in the Ukraine as a wildlife refuge where he can continue to work. Mousseau says he has no concerns about the reliability of the data Møller collected or of their analysis "I walk with him," he says, "We do these transects together." He praised Gaschak as a naturalist but questioned his analytical experience, noting that he had not previously published a paper on the topic. He calls Gaschak's claim "hearsay" and says that "giving it that much weight does the whole scientific enterprise a disservice."

Unfortunately, Gaschak says, the current sorry state of science funding in former Soviet countries, has not afforded him the opportunity to try to replicate – or prove wrong – Møller's work. "That is why [there are] so few publications about wildlife in the contaminated areas," he says. The lack of funding, he maintains, has allowed one voice to dominate the public conversation.

Image courtesy of Fi Dot via Flickr

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