Fredrik Jutfelt

Fish researcher combating fraud

He has been on adventurous research expeditions across the globe, and experienced both highs and lows before his research career took off in Norway. Meet recently employed Professor Fredrik Jutfelt, who has the courage to call out fraudulent practices within his field of research.

It’s a large and spacious office that Fredrik Jutfelt occupies at NTNU, Norway’s University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. This is apparent even on video link. A generous sized conference table, a corner sofa. Books and photographic art adorning the walls. Black-and-white photos of fish were taken by Fredrik himself. Last summer, he won a photo competition run by the international magazine, Communication Arts.

At 47, Fredrik Jutfelt is a professor at NTNU, where for the past seven years, he has established a successful research group with a dozen or so employees. They have plentiful funding from several donors and this summer, he received EUR 2 million in an ERC Consolidator Grant. It looks like he’d had it easy. But that has not always been the case.

Fredrik Jutfelt is a professor of zoophysiology and is conducting research on the impact of environmental changes on fish and what happens in fish organs when the water temperature is raised. He had previously studied how cod and other fish species react on an individual level.  But in order to determine how an entire fish population adapts to warmer seawater through evolution, many generations must be followed. Most species take many years before they begin reproducing, so Fredrik had to switch his model to the wild zebra fish from India.

Fredrik Jutfelt is not only interested in fish, he also takes fantastic pictures of them. Last summer, he won a photo competition run by the international magazine, Communication Arts.

“Evolution is tricky of course. No one has previously been able to measure the evolution of heat tolerance in fish in the way that we have now done. We were able to see that the fish adapted with each generation and that they could withstand increasingly higher temperatures. However, the pace was far too slow to keep up with the rate at which climate change is occurring,” Fredrik Jutfelt explained.

The research project has spanned several years and the results have now been published in the scientific journal, PNAS.

Fredrik’s road to research was not straightforward. He does not come from an academic family or environment. At the end of compulsory school, he was sick of school and chose the social studies stream in upper secondary school. He enjoyed art, photography and drawing. But he also had an interest in biology. And a fondness for fish.

He grew up in Sollentuna and spent his summer holidays with his family in a small sailboat in the Stockholm archipelago.

“I snorkelled, looked at the animals in the sea. It aroused my interest in nature. My grandfather was a recreational angler and he was probably the one responsible for my interest in fish in particular. When I was really young, I used to accompany him down to the pier and fish for perch. I found it really thrilling.

After leaving upper secondary school, Jutfelt obtained a Bachelor’s degree in biology in Kalmar. This was followed by a doctoral programme at the University of Gothenburg and then a position as a research assistant. Fredrik had just started a family and everything seemed to be going swimmingly.

But after five years, the money ran out.

“I had no funding – so I simply had to leave. It was hard to be unemployed. I looked for jobs all over the world and finally landed a job as a senior lecturer in Norway.

Jutfelt moved with his family to Trondheim in autumn 2015.

He seems be the adventurous type. A Google image search shows him with venomous snakes, next to igloos and wearing scuba gear off the coast of Australia. Courage appears to be one of his most prominent traits. Being a truth seeker is another. So, it came as no surprise that he dared to approach the media when he and his colleague Josefin Sundin discovered research fraud on Gotland in 2016. At that time, Jutfelt and his colleague had been conducting experiments in the same lab as a researcher who had a small project about plastics and fish. The researcher borrowed some perch fry, which were poured into small beakers, after which microplastics were added.

“We saw that the researcher’s experiment wasn’t going well, and didn’t give it any more thought. After all, it was just a small pilot project. But one year later, when we saw the study published in Science, purporting to show that perch fry preferred microplastics over their natural food, we were baffled – the experiment had failed after all.  

They realized that the results had been fabricated and that the experiment described in the article had never even been conducted. Following an extensive process, it was established that research fraud and data fabrication were behind the article. Science had to retract the article.

“When we then travelled to the Great Barrier Reef, we realised that researchers from the same research group had also published some results that didn’t add up. Some of these articles are also being withdrawn, including another article in Science.” Jutfelt explains.

Jutfelt has continued to review data from new studies published.

“It was never my plan to do this. It’s not what I want to do. But we were forced to deal with it when we first saw the article from Gotland, which was completely fabricated.”

He is disappointed by this fraud.

“In the past, whenever I read about some exciting new discovery, my first thought was:  Wow, how amazing! Now, my first thought is: Is this really true? Will independent research groups be able to replicate these experiments? Unfortunately, I have become increasingly sceptical when I read new research articles.”

Jutfelt will soon be departing Trondheim for Gothenburg. His family has already moved back to their terraced house in Utby, but Jutfelt has an apartment in Trondheim, where his research group is still working. In a few years, he will be working full-time at the University of Gothenburg. And Fredrik and the zebra fish will then move into the new science faculty building, Natrium.

This research field over time

Then: The equipment or technology that is available today did not exist in the past. Zoophysiologists studied fewer individuals, but nevertheless arrived at general conclusions. Research was not as statistically robust as it is today. Back then, researchers had a lot of time to perform their experiments and analyses. It could take many years before they compiled the results of a few experiments into a single research article. On the other hand, they would thoroughly test all the different aspects and conduct the same experiment multiple times in order to verify that the results were correct.

NOW:  Although researchers today have a better grasp of statistics, they are under greater time pressure than before. Even small experiments, with only a small impact, are published as articles in a scientific journal. Studies are no longer followed up in the same way as before and neither are the experiments replicated.

IN THE FUTURE: Researchers will be able to produce perfect experimental organisms for the questions they wish to pose and study. This is already happening within biomedicine, and will also become commonplace in the fields of ecology and zoophysiology. Through Open Science – that researchers share all their data – all coding and scripts will be open and transparent. This will allow for more studies to be replicated and facilitate the discovery of any errors. The scientific community will impose higher demands on transparency in research. Studies will be more robust and statistically verified. Small and insignificant research articles will probably gradually disappear

Fredrik Julfelt

Role: Professor at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences.

Age: 47 years

Family: Wife Ida and two children aged 12 and 14 years.

Hidden talent: Can do a Heel flip – an advanced skateboard jump.