Criticisms cue shifts in research procedures

Dalia Naamani-Goldman

Northwestern’s Office of Research is searching for more associate vice presidents and greater faculty involvement in an effort to correct recent regulatory problems that have cost the university millions of dollars.

University officials are recruiting an associate vice president for research integrity, who would keep track of federal regulations and deal with compliance problems, according to C. Bradley Moore, vice president for research.

Two current faculty members also will be appointed to ensure open communication between administration and faculty. And the Office for the Protection of Research Subjects has hired more personnel to assist in protocol approval and review.

“We’re trying to build strong, resilient support systems for NU’s research programs and support of faculty,” Moore told The Daily on Monday.

The changes come as various federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are investigating NU for compliance problems, including improper animal treatment, protocol organization and training.

The university paid a $5.5-million settlement earlier this year to the federal government in connection with an investigation into such problems.

Some former employees of OPRS have said lack of training, a stressful working environment and poor leadership contributed to the office’s organizational problems. The university is actively working on these, Moore said.

NU hired Huron Consulting Group to review the university’s research practices last April. The firm, along with the University Advisory Committee on Research Administration Roles and Responsibilities, released a report with findings in early June. Officials will release the report to the NU community at the end of the week, Moore said.

“We wanted to take some time to look at it carefully and understand how we will proceed,” Moore said. “We want everyone to see it and to help us get it right.”

The Office of Research also is working closely with the USDA, which has released reports citing policy violations beginning in September 2002. The university and the USDA continue to have written correspondence, Moore said.

“It’s been more of a collaborative process than a ‘we-they’ back and forth,” Moore said. “I really look at USDA as helping us do the job right.”

Moore said the most immediate issues are to ensure all faculty, graduate students and research technicians are properly trained and all protocols are in order and accurate.

Those people who come into contact with animals must take a required computer training program. All faculty have completed the program thus far, and the graduate students and research technicians still are in the process, according to Moore.

Researchers also now must track each animal in each protocol. The number of animals researchers use no longer will be grouped together.

“Nearly all of this is about recording keeping,” Moore said. “There have been few criticisms about actual practices.”

Lewis Smith, executive director for OPRS, said his department is moving toward Web-based protocol submission and review. Smith said the new system could substantially reduce the likelihood of error.

But a former employee in the OPRS said the computer program isn’t likely to improve training among both researchers and technicians.

“This is just a time-gaining strategy,” said the former employee, who asked to remain anonymous.

The former employee said an NU faculty member took the “quiz,” recorded the answers and passed an answer key to a number of people.

“What kind of training is that?” the former employee said.

Also, the former employee said involving more faculty in the administrative aspect of the Office of Research won’t harm anything — but it also won’t help.

“Adding more vice presidents is only adding more overhead,” the employee said. “It’s just a waste of money.”