From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research

It’s Time to Talk!

Michael Gottesman

Michael Gottesman

Kathryn Partin

Kathryn Partin

Every year, as summer turns to fall, there is excitement on campus. The Research Festival serves to reconvene the research community after a long, hot summer filled with research and vacations. As our summer trainees go back to school, a new cohort of trainees settle in. The intramural community revels in the process that brings research experience, knowledge, and passion to the next generation of researchers through the intramural training programs. Haven’t we all had the experience of overhearing trainee conversations, in the cafeteria or as we walk the halls, about an experiment that finally worked? It brings to mind that our mission at NIH, besides making discoveries, is to prepare the next generation to continue to make important discoveries.

For some of us, the season ushers in excitement about another intramural tradition: our annual ethics case discussions. “Wait, what?” you might ask. No, seriously, this is our 19th year of the concerted ethics-training cases, and for some of us, discussing them is as much fun as training in research methodology. It has become very clear that successful, resilient scientists need formal training in ethical decision-making as well as in the other aspects of the responsible conduct of research (also called RCR, but don’t get us started about the overuse of abbreviations at the NIH).

RCR training is a formal and informal process through which we impart to our trainees how to determine what is the “right” thing to do when there is an ethical dilemma and, more broadly, a comprehensive understanding of the ethical dimensions of the performance of research. RCR goes beyond the issues of the ethical use of animals in research or of human participants in clinical research. RCR encompasses the processes we use to ensure that the data we collect are accurate and have integrity, and when published are a valid representation of the experiment performed. RCR also includes our mandate to be good citizens in an ethical research community, promoting an environment that is diverse, inclusive, fair, safe, open, and welcoming.

However, sometimes there is a gap between the research environment we believe will be conducive to innovative, productive science and the actual research environment we live in today. Many efforts over the past year at NIH have focused on assessing our research climate, and sadly, we are not where we need to be. Too many employees and trainees experience bullying, harassment, and even sexual harassment. This situation is not acceptable and damages the research enterprise.

We have committed ourselves to improving our research climate. One way we are hoping to tackle this challenge is by using this year’s research ethics case studies to delve into the topic in our labs, offices, and clinics. This is a critical opportunity for PIs to take stock of their own role in fostering a welcoming environment.

Many of us heard, when we were being trained, that “if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen” or other disparaging comments that made training experiences more akin to fraternity hazing than a professional training experience. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now. That type of toxicity is lethal to many female researchers and other budding scientists from groups underrepresented in our profession who then leave science prematurely, depriving the world of their brilliance, innovation, and genius.

The ethics cases this year allow a PI to carve out some time to help reset the tone and create an environment that we all can be proud of. It is just as important to help trainees develop their reasoning skills in areas of research ethics as it is to train them how to design a rigorous experiment. The cases were carefully written by PIs who serve on the intramural Committee for Scientific Conduct and Ethics. The cases this year deal with interpersonal relationships that disrupt a research lab and that can have a disproportionately negative impact on trainees.

Discussion of the case scenarios will allow PIs to express their own commitment to improving the research climate for all. It is an opportunity to reinforce the intramural policies and procedures, but maybe just as importantly, to learn about the wealth of resources we can turn to when there is a relationship that threatens to disrupt work in the lab. You’ll find the cases posted in the Sourcebook under “Ethical Conduct” at https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/ethical-conduct/responsible-conduct-research-training/annual-review-ethics-case-studies.

We hope you take this opportunity to enjoy the excitement that the newest cohort of trainees brings to the intramural program. It is also an opportunity to stand with the NIH leadership in declaring that we are completely committed to necessary change that ensures a positive, productive environment for all researchers in our community.