Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What's going on?

I was flying to Montreal on Sunday reading a recent issue of Science and came across a new piece that shocked me. It deals with the dismissal of Allen Braun from the NIH (here). His group in the NICDC was investigated by the NIH for violations having to do with the processing of subjects for fMRI experiments and were found wanting. The consequences of this investigation include dismissal for Braun and an embargo of all of the data collected in his lab for the last 25 years. Yes, you read that right. 25. The NIH is not allowing any data collected under Braun's supervision to be used for new publications. This includes not only his own work but also that of Post Docs, Grad students, colleagues, undergrads; whoever did any data collection in his unit.

Now, you may be thinking that this is because the data was fraudulently concocted, just another case of manufacturing bad data. But nope, that's not it at all. Rather, the problem seems to be that Braun may have not been punctilious in processing subjects. Apparently, the NIH has a protocol that requires subjects to get medical oks to participate (a reasonable enough requirement). Braun is accused of being sloppy wrt to signing off on some of these. Here's what the NIH audit found:
The audit, which is dated February 2016 and which Science obtained, noted that Braun had not signed off on histories and physicals for 206 of the 424 volunteers whose records the audit examined. But the audit also noted that of those 206, all but five had received a history and physical elsewhere at the agency, because they were participating in other NIH studies, too.
There were other, what appear to be, paperwork issues as well, but as the Science piece points out:
 There is no evidence, they have argued in letters to NIH officials, that the violations compromised the bulk of the data or the safety of study volunteers.
Nonetheless, the data collected cannot be used by anyone, thereby derailing a lot of basic research, and, I might add, suggesting that there is something tainted in the data and/or that Braun did something fraudulent and/or immoral. Note I say "suggesting." Importantly there is no hint of evidence supporting this conclusion, but the severity of the punishment and quiescence of the NIH in responding to objections invites the suspicion that there is more to the story than is being reported.

Now note: it is agreed that nothing untoward happened due to this alleged "sloppiness." There is not even a charge that the sloppiness was deliberate. Indeed, it seems that the biggest charge had to do with 206 histories and physicals Braun did not sign off on but of these 201 were done and signed off on in other NIH labs. So, we are looking at wrecking or, at least, seriously damaging many careers for what appears to be trivial reasons. The reasons may be more serious, but the NICDC is not talking. They are taking the CYA position that a legal proceeding is pending so they are staying mum.

And, the NIH (more exactly, the NICDC) will not back down. It seems that they really don't care about the consequences for young investigators of their embargo. Interestingly, the NIH doesn't seem to want to antagonize published authors for the NICDC is not asking that papers using the same data be retracted if already published. So the data is good enough if out there but not good enough to be put out there. I am having a hard time understanding what justifies the invidious distinction the NICDC is drawing here between the two kinds of data. Unpublished data, bad. Published data, ok. Same data, different judgments. Why?

I have known Allen Braun for quite a while. He is not a close friend but he is someone that I talked to quite a bit over the years and I find it hard to believe that he and his collaborators deserve any of this. I have no idea what the real cause for this extremely harsh (and from what I can tell from the Science piece, unprecedented) treatment is. But it would be nice to know. Scientists like to tell themselves stories that the enterprise is driven by the noblest values and passions: the desire to know, disinterested curiosity, noble urges towards the truth. But we all know that this is junk. Individual scientists are like everyone else, motivated in many different ways. Scientific bureaucracies are like all others, sometimes self-serving and protective and political. Science is supposed to be built to withstand these motives, not eliminate them. However, science like all pastimes can have a less pleasant side. This sure smells like one of those cases. The NIH should examine this and make public what really happened. It's hard for me to believe that the reported infractions justify such a brutal and heavy handed response. One had better have very good grounds for ruining people's careers.


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