Kathryn Partin

Kathryn Partin, new head of the Office of Research Integrity, is clashing with staff.

William A. Cotton/CSU Photography

New leader of NIH’s research watchdog faces staff revolt

The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in Rockville, Maryland, which guards against misconduct in biomedical research, usually attracts attention with its findings, not its internal workings. But 2 years ago, its director, David Wright, quit in a public huff, complaining that ORI was hobbled by a dysfunctional federal bureaucracy. Now, his successor is encountering her own rough waters, Science has learned.

Kathryn Partin, who took the helm of ORI in December 2015, has launched a top-to-bottom review of the office, which has been criticized for moving too slowly and meting out sanctions that lack teeth. She has also brought in an investigator from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as her acting deputy director, a possible sign that she wishes to expand ORI's powers to mirror those of the research integrity division within NSF's Office of Inspector General, which can issue subpoenas, for example (see table, below). But in one of several letters of protest to Partin's superiors at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), many of ORI's investigative staff recently expressed "profound concern about the tone and direction" she has taken. They contend that Partin does not fully understand ORI's regulatory constraints and is unjustifiably seeking to replace ORI's two division directors, whose departure, they write, would be a "disaster." John Dahlberg, who before retiring last year was ORI's deputy director, says that his former office "seems to be falling apart."

Whether the quarrel is more than a new boss challenging an old guard resistant to change is hard to resolve. Partin and her superiors have declined to comment on the staff turmoil or on specific plans for change. "We are focused on examining all of our processes, and all of the ways we can support institutions in their investigations," the former neuroscientist told Science in her first interview since taking over. (Partin provided written responses to emailed questions; an edited transcript of the interview can be found here.)

ORI was created 24 years ago to police research misconduct among scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other HHS agencies. The office's 13-person investigative division currently relies mainly on probes by researchers' home institutions to produce about a dozen research misconduct findings a year. An education division runs research integrity teaching programs and helps organize well-regarded "boot camps" for university research integrity officers (RIOs). A model for science agencies in other countries, ORI is "by far the most important research integrity program in the world," says Nicholas Steneck of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, a research ethics expert who has worked closely with ORI.

ORI needs strong leadership at all levels and staff continuity. The public would not be well-served if research were to lose its conscience.

Nicholas Steneck, University of Michigan

The penalties ORI delivers usually don't go beyond a negotiated ban on seeking federal grant funds for a few years. That publicly announced debarment effectively ends most research careers, one ORI investigator stressed to Science. Partin appears to support that approach. "I believe that our current model of very aggressive notification to the public, journals, and funding offices of our findings of research misconduct has merit."

Others think ORI's sanctions are too light. In one recent misconduct case involving an AIDS vaccine researcher who accepted a 3-year funding ban, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) complained that ORI or HHS should have taken stronger actions. After his intervention, federal prosecutors took on the case and won a lengthy jail term for the scientist, along with an order that he pay back $7.2 million in grant money.

ORI's new head spent 20 years at Colorado State University (CSU), Fort Collins, where she served as CSU's RIO and oversaw research ethics education. While she was there, NSF found that a CSU plant scientist had published fabricated data with a postdoc, resulting in many retracted papers. "I learned how devastating findings of research misconduct are—to the individual, the department, and the whole institution," Partin says.

HHS/ORI, NSF

At ORI, Partin says she has gathered input about what her office could do better. The research community wants faster case closure, more guidance on handling retractions, and more data on misconduct trends, she says. Partin has also named Scott Moore, an investigative scientist and attorney who works at NSF's Office of Inspector General in Arlington, Virginia, as her acting deputy. The objective is "not for ORI to become more like NSF, but rather to allow both organizations to benefit from sharing information about processes and procedures," she says.

Partin may be looking to NSF for ideas about how to handle charges of plagiarism. Although 81% of NSF's research misconduct findings involve plagiarism, ORI has left most plagiarism allegations to institutions to handle. ORI's policy in this area "deserves a fresh look," Partin says. Some research integrity experts who spoke with Science agreed. But expanding ORI's purview would mean a much larger caseload for an already overwhelmed staff, warns Wright, now at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

In Wright's view, ORI should have subpoena power and should sometimes conduct its own investigations. Partin, however, remains publicly noncommittal on those issues. "If it … becomes clear that ensuring integrity … warrants a change in the rules, then the only responsible thing for ORI to do is to initiate that conversation," she says.

ORI's $8.6 million budget would likely need a boost to make use of any expanded powers—and changing its authority would not be for the faint of heart. "It would be a cold day in hell before most of the major research groups would recommend bolstering and strengthening ORI," Steneck says. Partin says she realizes agency rulemaking is a "long and difficult process." But, she adds, "In the short term, there is much we can do without going that route."

Partin may need to resolve the friction within ORI first. A 10 May letter from six of the office's scientist-investigators complains that Partin has "apparently concluded that she cannot work with" either division director. The letter also takes her to task for "lack of transparency"—noting in particular Moore's arrival. "Tensions and conflict" are "tearing this office apart," the letter says.

ORI watchers say that whatever changes Partin makes, she should aim for stability within the staff, which has the unusual blend of science and legal expertise needed to deal with research misconduct and has formed long-running relationships with universities. "ORI needs strong leadership at all levels and staff continuity. The public would not be well-served if research were to lose its conscience," Steneck says.