The strange claims of Steven Newmaster

And why the University of Guelph appears indifferent to allegations against its star professor

“I was called in last fall to work with [the Centers for Disease Control] to do some of the genome sequencing on the Corona 2 virus,” Steven Newmaster casually explained in an October 2020 interview on a Mississauga talk-radio station.

Taken aback by this claim, the host, Brian Crombie, asked for clarification. How could Newmaster, a botany professor at the University of Guelph, have been studying SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — all the way back in the fall of 2019, prior to its having been discovered? Was he perhaps speaking about coronaviruses generally?

“Oh no, this is specific for COVID-19,” said Newmaster, who runs Guelph’s Natural Health Products Research Alliance. He then doubled down, claiming his work on SARS-CoV-2 had in fact begun in the summer of 2019.

In an investigation for Science published earlier this year, reporter Charles Piller highlighted this exchange as a relatively minor, if “particularly odd,” example of the sort of dishonesty in which Newmaster is alleged to have regularly engaged over the last decade. Beyond the highly dubious timeline, Piller reported that “a CDC spokesperson could not locate information about working with Newmaster.”

On this week’s CANADALAND, senior producer Sarah Lawrynuik reviews the startling evidence gathered against Newmaster and why the University of Guelph seems so reluctant to take the concerns against its star professor seriously:

As with Science, Newmaster did not respond to CANADALAND’s request for an interview. He similarly did not respond to requests for comment from the Guelph Mercury Tribune and The Globe and Mail in the wake of the Science story in February. Even the journal Biodiversity and Conservation said it was unable to reach him last fall about its decision to retract a 2014 paper he co-authored.

But in his written response to the university submitted during a recent formal investigation, he flatly denied any suggestion that he’d engaged in the manufacturing or manipulation of data in his studies.

That investigation was spurred by a 43-page complaint submitted to the university in June of last year by eight academics representing four institutions, who jointly raised concerns about three of Newmaster’s published papers. Earlier this month, the university’s investigation committee found he “displayed a pattern of poor judgement and failed to apply the standards reasonably expected in research activity in his discipline,” but stopped short of concluding there had been academic misconduct.

Here are some edited excerpts of what Sarah heard about that process:

“The committee that was appointed to review the complaint against Newmaster by his colleagues and others, about his three academic studies, none of the members of that committee had any expertise in the subject matter that would allow them to evaluate the concerns. So they relied heavily on an outside consultant whose name they never provided. So no one knows who that consultant was. No one knows whether that person also has a conflict of interest.”
Science reporter Charles Piller

“[The committee] initially offered to only have a single 30-minute interview with all eight of us, which is obviously extremely insufficient to cover the details here. And when we did meet with them, it seemed like they really didn’t do their homework. They didn’t have very good questions. They were asking some questions that I kind of thought like, ‘Are you kidding? Are you seriously asking this right now?’ And then we never met with them again.”
— Ken Thompson, an evolutionary biologist and postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, who co-authored a 2014 paper with Newmaster and was the first to raise concerns about him

“There are close relationships between some university administrators and Newmaster that go back years. Second, he’s a pretty high-profile guy who’s brought in a bunch of money, and they are undoubtedly concerned about aspects of that. For example, if some of his work was found to be fraudulent by a government agency, they could try to claw back that money, which would be harmful to the university. I think, though, the more important thing is the potential reputational effects on the University of Guelph, which is a large university that has a lot to protect in regard to its reputation. And if the university were to come down on Newmaster for what looks to be like a multi-year record of all of the kinds of apparently fraudulent activities that were uncovered by myself and also by the people who wrote the complaint against him, that would be a pretty significant reputational hit against the university.”
— Piller, on why the University of Guelph might not be incentivized to take the concerns seriously

“They said they found no evidence of fraud in any of these allegations we made in the 43 pages of our initial allegation. And that really floored us. I thought that maybe with seven other people with detailed access to the internal records showing that there never was any data generated, that they would at least have to acknowledge reality, that there’s something seriously wrong here. And they never did.” — Thompson

“The University takes allegations of research misconduct very seriously. The investigation in question remains active, guided by the University of Guelph’s Responsible Conduct of Research Policy and Procedures. The University will continue to follow the policy and procedures and act as appropriate and necessary based on the final outcome. The investigation process and any preliminary findings are confidential.”
— the University of Guelph, in a statement provided to CANADALAND

“Society’s trust in the scientific process is shattered. It tends to resurface at moments like this, when human health, human values are at risk. And so every time you see a car speed through a red light, unless there’s some penalty imposed on that, society begins to distrust the fact that we’re taking care of the system. The standards are evolving. So Denmark first in 2017, Sweden in 2020 recognized that universities and research institutions cannot effectively investigate themselves. There’s too much conflict of interest. And so they moved to establish national offices for research integrity and move the investigations out of the research institutes. That’s what I would really like to see in Canada. It’s what’s required to maximize societal trust. I mean, our mission is to advance understanding of our world. And you can’t do that if individuals working within that system are fabricating data.”
— Paul Hebert, professor of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph and director of its Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, among those who lodged the complaint against Newmaster

Top screencap from a 2015 episode of the CBC’s The Fifth Estate about the 2013 paper on the supplements industry on which Newmaster made his name (and which now carries an editor’s note at the top)

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