The Training Page
From the Fellows Committee
A Culture of Integrity: Ethical Expectations for NIH Trainees
“A culture of positive ethical behavior helps build public trust,” said Deputy Ethics Counselor Eric Hale in the National Cancer Institute’s Ethics Office. “Maintaining public trust is critical to the mission of the NIH.”
Positive ethical behavior means conducting research responsibly and ethically (with honesty, objectivity, and integrity) as well as complying with other government ethics policies that have to do with outside activities and accepting awards. So, let’s take a moment to review what you as a trainee need to know.
Ethical conduct policies
NIH’s research ethics policies and guidelines set standards for how research should be conducted including the sharing of genomic and human data, collaborations between extramural and intramural scientists, sharing resources, storing and tracking human biospecimens, reporting of clinical research results, mentoring and training, and investigating allegations of research misconduct. There are even policies addressing controversial topics such as dual-use research (work that is intended to be beneficial, but if misapplied, could cause harm) and the use of human fetal tissue and human stem cells.
One component of conducting research responsibly is to report to the appropriate channels if you see something that may be problematic in the intramural program. If you witness or suspect research misconduct (fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results), you can contact the Agency Intramural Research Integrity Officer (AIRIO) in the Office of the Director, or you can choose to report anonymously. If you are uncertain whether research misconduct has occurred, you can contact Lori Conlan in the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) for advice, or the NIH Office of the Ombudsman for a confidential conversation. Importantly, “trainees remain in full control of whether, when, or how they will proceed, if at all,” said NIH Ombudsman Victor Voloshin, Director of the Center for Cooperative Resolution.
For more information on guidelines for conducting research, reporting research misconduct, and other ethics procedures and policies, you can check the “Ethical Conduct” section in the Sourcebook (https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook), a compendium of policies and resources for the NIH scientific research community.
Outside activities and awards
In addition to being expected to conduct research ethically, you need to be aware of other government ethics policies that regulate what outside activities you can participate in and what awards you are allowed to accept. The guidelines differ depending on whether you are a non-full-time-equivalent (non-FTE) trainee or an FTE trainee. Non-FTE trainees include summer interns, graduate students, postbacs, postdocs, and visiting fellows (foreign nationals). FTE trainees include research fellows and clinical fellows. For details, please refer to the links for “outside activities guidelines” at the end of this article.
Although some guidelines differ depending on the type of trainee you are, everyone is are expected to abide by the HHS Standards of Conduct (https://ethics.od.nih.gov/hhs_resid_std) and all applicable federal policies (https://ethics.od.nih.gov/policies), confirmed Nancy O’Hanlon, Supervisory Ethics Specialist at the NCI Ethics Office.
To learn more about bioethics in general, check the “Bioethics” section in the Sourcebook and with the NIH Department of Bioethics, which provides research, training, and a Bioethics Consult Service, and offers courses, ethics grand rounds, and colloquia. Bioethics “is a field that examines the often-vexing questions about right and wrong that inevitably arise in the conduct of medical research and clinical care,” said Christine Grady, Chief of the NIH Department of Bioethics.
Training in ethics
Worried that you might not be able to keep track of everything you need to know? Never fear, NIH provides virtual training courses and offers annual refreshers, too. Check the Sourcebook’s “Ethical Conduct” section for “Responsible Conduct of Research Training” (RCR), which covers how to avoid research misconduct and questionable research practices as well as how to foster an ethical scientific environment. NIH intramural trainees are required to take at least eight hours of RCR instruction—some within three weeks of arrival at NIH—and programs are tailored according to the type of trainee you are.
In addition, OITE provides a virtual mandatory training to help you understand the more general type of government ethics policies and your responsibilities as a trainee.
“Training in ethics and the responsible conduct of research is foundational to our training programs,” said AIRIO Kathryn Partin, Director of Research Integrity in the Office of Intramural Research.
Use this article’s resources to guide your great work here at the NIH, adherent to all applicable research, government employment, and bioethics policies. For a complete list of resources and links, see below.
Sourcebook (a compendium of policies and resources for the NIH scientific research community): https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook
Ethical Conduct: https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/ethical-conduct
Reporting suspected research misconduct
- Information: https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/ethical-conduct/research-misconduct
- If you aren’t sure and want to talk to someone for advice: Contact Lori Conlan in OITE (https://www.training.nih.gov/contact) for advice or contact the NIH Office of the Ombudsman (https://ombudsman.nih.gov) for a confidential conversation.
- Sourcebook: https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook
- Ethical Conduct (in Sourcebook): https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/ethical-conduct
- NIH Ethics Program: https://ethics.od.nih.gov
- NIH Policy Manual: https://policymanual.nih.gov
- Ethics contacts for ICs: https://ethics.od.nih.gov/contacts
- In-kind Travel Awards: https://policymanual.nih.gov/1500
- HHS Standards of Conduct: https://ethics.od.nih.gov/hhs_resid_std
- Federal regulations: https://ethics.od.nih.gov/policies
- “Bioethics” section in the Sourcebook: https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/ethical-conduct/bioethics
- NIH Department of Bioethics: https://www.bioethics.nih.gov
- Responsible Conduct of Research Workshop: https://www.training.nih.gov/ethics_training_home_page
- Rights and Responsibilities Training: https://www.training.nih.gov/rights_and__responsibilities
- Mentoring and Training: https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/mentoring-training
Outside activities guidelines
- Non-FTE trainees: “Guidelines for Non-FTEs (Trainees) for NIH-Related Activities, Outside Activities, and Awards”: https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/ethical-conduct/government-ethics/guidelines-non-ftes-trainees-nih-related-activities-outside-activities
- Note: For visiting fellows, the NIH Division of International Services must approve outside activities: https://ors.od.nih.gov/pes/dis/Pages/default.aspx.
- FTE trainees: (research and clinical fellows): Government Ethics: https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/ethical-conduct/government-ethics; or contact your institute or center’s deputy ethics counselor (see list at https://ethics.od.nih.gov/contacts).
NIH offices mentioned in this article
- Agency Intramural Research Integrity Office: https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/ethical-conduct/research-misconduct
- Department of Bioethics: https://www.bioethics.nih.gov/
- Division of International Services: https://ors.od.nih.gov/pes/dis/Pages/default.aspx
- Office of Intramural Research: https://oir.nih.gov/
- Office of Intramural Training and Education: https://www.training.nih.gov/
- Office of the Ombudsman: https://ombudsman.nih.gov/
- National Cancer Institute Ethics Office: https://www.cancer.gov/about-nci/organization/om#ethics-office
Larisa Gearhart-Serna, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the National Cancer Institute’s Technology Transfer Center, is a member of The NIH Catalyst Editorial Board. Outside of work, she enjoys flamenco dancing, baking, annoying her pet rabbit, and finding the best spots for ice cream and hiking in the area.
This page was last updated on Monday, January 9, 2023