UK, other schools don't do enough to protect, reward whistle-blowers

UK, other schools Don't do enough to protect, reward whistle-blowers

December 16, 2012 

The first in the University of Kentucky's list of 11 core values is "integrity." Also included are "personal and institutional responsibility and accountability," and "mutual respect and human dignity."

It is, frankly and sadly, hard to see those values at work in the story of Dr. Eric Smart and the man who blew the whistle on his faked research, Dr. William Everson.

As the Herald-Leader's Linda Blackford reported, Everson has lost his job, his research and his career since he alerted the dean of the UK College of Medicine to Smart's false data in 2009.

Smart resigned but not before he was recommended for another job and a letter about his probation for sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment disappeared from his personnel file. Institutional responsibility and human dignity?

Indeed, the picture that arises is of a research community driven not by scientific inquiry but by ability to bring in money, of research assistants who rely upon the success and favor of their superstar bosses to advance, so much so that they're reluctant to complain about long hours, harassment, or even fudging the data.

This picture is especially troubling now, with the push to get more bright young students interested in science. It also presents an ugly face at a time when science is questioned among policy makers.

UK is by no means alone. In 2004, the Journal of Medical Ethics published a paper by two doctors at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. They noted that medical schools have policies and committees about ethics but that rubber rarely meets the road. "As the authors see it, institutional design: (1) systematically ignores serious ethical problems, (2) makes whistle-blowers into institutional enemies and punishes them, and (3) thereby fails to provide an ethical environment."

Even those who are financially rewarded for blowing the whistle are not to be envied, according to a study the New England Journal of Medicine published in 2010. The authors interviewed 26 people who'd gotten big rewards from settlements that arose out of federal prosecutions based on their revelations about pharmaceutical companies.

Still, the long wait for justice took its toll. "A common theme was that the decision to blow the whistle had 'put their career on the line.'" They suffered financial stress, family conflict, divorce and health problems, including shingles, autoimmune disorders, panic attacks, asthma, insomnia and migraines. Most still felt they'd done the right thing, but "the prevailing sentiment was that the (financial) payoff had not been worth the personal cost."

When Smart's research collapsed, UK gave Everson and others in Smart's lab, a year of lab space and financial support. "UK thought Everson would be able to get grants and bring money in, unfortunately for Dr. Everson it did not work out that way," UK General Counsel William Thro said last week.

A new policy to protect whistle-blowers will be presented to the board of trustees in January, but Thro acknowledged Everson would not have fared better under it.

As for Smart, while the federal government may pursue him, and possibly UK, to recover some of its money, UK has no plans and no policy to recover salary, special awards or its contributions to his retirement account.

UK has ambitions to stand out among research universities. A good way to start might be by punishing cheaters and rewarding whistle-blowers.

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