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Kathryn Partin

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Director of HHS scientific fraud office is out after stormy 2-year tenure

The controversial director of the office that polices research fraud in U.S.-funded biomedical labs is temporarily moving to another agency. Kathy Partin has been removed after nearly 2 years as director of the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in Rockville, Maryland, according to Retraction Watch, which broke the story today. But Partin reportedly has hired an attorney and plans to challenge the decision.

Partin’s move was announced on Friday, along with several other departmental staff changes, in an internal memo from the acting assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C. The memo states that on 4 December, Partin “will begin a 90-day detail,” or temporary assignment, in the Office of the Vice President for Research at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

Partin was asked to leave and clear out her office, according to Linda Schutjer, a former colleague of Partin’s at Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins, who is quoted by Retraction Watch. An email to Partin seeking comment drew an automatic reply saying she is on annual leave.

ORI oversees research integrity in studies funded by the National Institutes of Health and other HHS agencies. Partin joined ORI in December 2015 after serving as an administrator at CSU. Within months, she was clashing with staff including the directors of ORI’s investigative and education divisions. In May 2016, six of the office’s scientist investigators wrote to Partin’s HHS bosses expressing concerns about her leadership and warning that “tensions and conflict” are “tearing this office apart.”

At the time, Partin declined to comment on the concerns. But she told Science that she was launching a review of ORI, wanted faster closure of cases, and planned to learn from the National Science Foundation, which handles misconduct differently—it pursues more plagiarism cases, for example.

Since then, departures from ORI have mounted. Education Division Director Zoe Hammett left in December 2016. Susan Garfinkel, who headed the investigative division, moved on this month. That division now has only four full-time scientific investigators, about half the number it had when Partin arrived.

ORI historically has issued about a dozen research misconduct findings a year, but delivered only seven in 2016 and five so far this year. Partin herself had begun leading investigations as well as making decisions about findings. In the past, to help ensure the objectivity of ORI’s determinations, the ORI director was not directly involved in investigations.

In one recent case, ORI issued findings about just a single fraudulent paper from a researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville who had already retracted eight papers after his university investigated. Partin justified ORI’s narrow focus as an effort to conserve resources. But ORI staff and others were dismayed that ORI did not also act on the university’s own findings. ORI’s decision “is an affront to the [university’s] time consuming and expensive effort” and, along with Partin’s dual role, “sets an unfortunate precedent for how other complex cases might be handled,” commented retired ORI Deputy Director John Dahlberg on Retraction Watch.

Wanda Jones, senior adviser to the HHS assistant secretary for Health, will serve as ORI interim director during Partin’s detail.

*Correction, 21 November, 11 a.m.: Wanda Jones’s title has been corrected.