After two years, quantum researcher Leo Kouwenhoven can finally talk. He had to keep quiet because of an ongoing investigation by the National Body for Scientific Integrity (LOWI) into articles by his research group that have been withdrawn from the journal Nature† In the meantime, also in NRC, written about. Measurements were incorrectly omitted.

The first withdrawn article was published in 2018. In it, the Delft research group van Kouwenhoven seemed to demonstrate the existence of the majorana particle. This particle could be a building block for future quantum computers. Kouwenhoven has been looking for these quantum particles for more than ten years, which theorists believe exist, but for which experimental evidence is lacking. last month drew Nature also returned a second article and Microsoft ended the partnership, which had been running since 2016.

In April 2020 appeared in Nature a “statement of concern” about the 2018 article. The article was found to contain no evidence for majorana particles. A setback for this field of research. The integrity committee of the TU Delft started an investigation into the working method within the research group. Later on, the LOWI also became involved and a second integrity investigation was launched in February because more of the group’s publications may contain errors.

Italian physicist Ettore Majorana.
Photo Mondadori Collection

During this study, the researchers involved had no contact with the media. Former employees of the research group Sergey Frolov and Vincent Mourik, who had raised the problems, did. Kouwenhoven was not completely silent at that time. In conversation with NRC in March 2021, he said “technical and judgment errors” had been made.

The integrity investigation is now being completed, but has not yet been published. Yet Kouwenhoven was allowed to talk. He did so in a 45-minute interview in the NTR podcast Atlas which appeared on Thursday. The editors were able to see the brief conclusion of the integrity investigation: “There were culpable errors, but no violation of scientific integrity.” The errors were the result of tunnel vision. Kouwenhoven says that he agrees.

In an article that appeared in the UN at the same time as the podcast, it states that the wrongful omission of measurements was done by Hao Zhang, a postdoc at Kouwenhoven at the time. He may have felt pressure to perform during his few years in Delft. The 2018 results were actually too good to be true. Kouwenhoven did not notice that at the time, he says at Atlas† “If only I had thought so. Then I could have prevented this whole thing.” He acknowledges that it should have been looked at more critically.

Yet Kouwenhoven does not seem to be changing his style: “I think it benefits science if you can take those risks and give people the responsibility and freedom to do their own research and make their own decisions.” Also, he is not giving up on his majorana dream. “Research went well last year,” he says at Atlas† “We have measured new, homemade majoranas and we will publish that shortly.”

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