Memory Hole (15 October): The case of Gretchen Lefever

Gretchen Lefever

2 years ago today: Some sense finally prevails in the case of bullied scientist Gretchen Lefever

On 15 October 2005 it was reported that Dr. Gretchen LeFever, an ADHD researcher, managed to give her bullies a punch in the eye.

Dr. Gretchen LeFever is a wonderful and brave lady. We finally met at a joint symposium on Academic Freedom at the American Psychological Association in August.

If you are still think that academia could not fall prey to McCarthyite bullying tactics--or Salem-like witch hunts -think again.

LeFever is a clinical psychologist and was associate professor in the department of paediatrics at the Eastern Virginia Medical School. She became the target of a witch hunt after reporting scientific findings that didn't quite fit with the commercial interests of other researchers working in her building.

She had been charged with scientific misconduct after allegations by an anonymous whistleblower charged that the wording in a questionnaire had changed. LeFever was cleared of those charges. She had already been told that her federally funded research had been terminated and that her employment would also be terminated by the medical school after the anonymous charge.

Dr LeFever's "crime:" She reported epidemiological findings of unprecedented prescribing of psychostimulants for children. Her research (published in 1999) showed that "8-10% of school children in two southeastern Virginia school districts were taking stimulant medication for ADHD." She questioned whether doctors (and psychologists) may be overdiagnosing ADHD in schoolchildren. Having made her job impossible, it seems that Eastern Virginia Medical School are still refusing to release her computers so that she can publish the final results of the study.

Shame on the complicit silent majority who didn't lift a finger, silently "going along."

British Medical Journal reporting of the case is below.

BMJ 2005;331:865 (15 October)
Researcher cleared of misconduct charges
Jeanne Lenzer


A US researcher who was charged with scientific misconduct after she reported that doctors and psychologists may be overdiagnosing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in schoolchildren has been cleared of all charges.

Gretchen LeFever, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the department of paediatrics at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, was told earlier this year that her federally funded research was terminated and that her employment would also be terminated by the medical school after anonymous charges of scientific misconduct were filed against her (BMJ 2005;330:691).

The school seized her computers, saying that Dr LeFever had held a research trial without getting informed consent from the participants.

Dr LeFever had previously been charged with scientific misconduct - and later cleared by the school - after allegations by an anonymous whistleblower of changing the wording in a questionnaire published in Psychology in the Schools (2002;39:63-71) from that actually used.

The school's most recent actions triggered international outrage. Thirty nine psychiatrists and psychologists signed a petition that they sent to the medical school's president, saying that instead of threatening to fire Dr LeFever, the school "should have commended and promoted her for having the courage to be among the first to sound the alarm about these concerning trends."

The petition stated that the school's actions were "an egregious violation of academic freedom," and that after Dr LeFever's initial report in 1999 (American Journal of Public Health 1999;89:1359-64), showing that "8-10% of school children in two southeastern Virginia school districts were taking stimulant medication for ADHD," other researchers documented "startling increases in the use of stimulant medication nationally," and late last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data showing national rates of stimulant use for 2002 similar to those that Dr LeFever had found (www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus.htm).

Dr LeFever says that the charge of scientific misconduct regarding patients' consent was particularly unexpected since the consent agreement had been approved by the school's own institutional review board.

A spokesperson for the Eastern Virginia Medical School told the BMJ via email that, "Gretchen LeFever, PhD, is associate professor of paediatrics and head of public health psychology in the department of paediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School. The issues between [the school] and Dr LeFever were satisfactorily resolved due to the professionalism of all concerned. She was cleared of all charges of scientific misconduct. She has been awarded a one year sabbatical to conduct research [that] focuses on community based efforts to prevent mental and behavioural disorders in children, an area of research that is recognised by [the school] as important work on behalf of our nation's children."

Dr LeFever has been outspoken about what she has called the overdiagnosis and overmedication of children said to have ADHD. She said that being charged anonymously felt like a witch hunt was underway. She told the BMJ, "It's unfortunate that these allegations were made. However, I'm greatly relieved that I've been cleared of all wrongdoing and I am pleased that [the school] is honouring me with a sabbatical to continue my work promoting child development and mental health and that the dean of the medical school is supporting my application to be promoted to full professor."

BMJ; AHRP

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