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Complaint delays award in Germany

DFG / Falk Wenzel Britta Nestler, with DFG President Peter Strohschneider (left) and Minister of Education Johanna Wanka (right), receives the Leibniz PrizeDFG / Falk Wenzel

Four months after the initial ceremony, German Research Foundation (DFG) has honored mathematician and materials scientist Britta Nestler, 45, with the Leibniz Prize, which recognizes the work of around a dozen researchers in Germany every year, offering each of them €2.5 million to invest in research projects over the following seven years. While the other winners received their awards on March 15, Nestler, a researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, only became eligible to receive the award on July 4. Before that, she had been under investigation by the DFG for alleged scientific misconduct—of which she was found innocent.

The list of winners was originally released in December, and in March, just a few days before the ceremony, an anonymous complaint was made, accusing Nestler of fraud in research projects funded by the DFG, Germany’s leading research foundation. Details of the complaint were kept confidential by the DFG, which opened an investigation and temporarily suspended the already-announced award. “Although this was a very difficult decision, it was in the best interests of Ms. Nestler, the DFG, and the Leibniz Prize,” said secretary general Dorothee Dzwonnek at the awards ceremony. “We then worked hard to investigate all aspects of the allegations, gave Ms. Nestler an ample hearing and also engaged an external reviewer, before finally the Committee of Inquiry on Allegations of Scientific Misconduct addressed the matter. This thorough investigation revealed no evidence of scientific misconduct on the part of Ms. Nestler.”

She was presented the Leibniz Prize at the DFG’s annual meeting in the city of Halle, in the presence of German Minister of Education and Research Johanna Wanka. “It is very important to the DFG that Ms. Nestler receive the prize in a formal ceremony and in the presence of political decision-makers,” Dzwonnek said. Nestler did not comment.

This is not the first time the DFG has experienced a situation like this. According to Der Spiegel magazine, they also delayed awarding medical professor Stefanie Dimmeler’s prize in 2005 after she was accused of fraud. She was found to have used the same image in several articles while giving the impression that they represented different experiments. The DFG awarded her the prize after concluding that her actions did not constitute deliberate misconduct or compromise the veracity of the published studies.