Research Integrity and Chancellor Choice

Lincoln -- It was only a matter of time before an academic researcher blew the whistle loudly on attempts to suppress his research. The case of South Dakota-based entomologist Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, whose work on pesticide dangers to pollinators was not welcome at the USDA, is quickly getting the national attention it deserves. USDA has essentially ruined his career. He has been forced to leave the Agricultural Research Service.

This hit home for me in three ways:

First, we raise bees on our prairie property northwest of Lincoln and would like the benefit of Lundgren's taxpayer-supported research. Federal agencies violate their own missions when they do not permit the public to see the research that we have paid for.

Second, I have a soft spot for whistleblowers, being acquainted with many personally: Michael Winston (Countrywide); Sherron Watkins (Enron); Jesslyn Radack (DOJ); Tom Drake (NSA); Frank Casey (Madoff); and Lincoln's own Kathy Bolkovac (UN). Typically, whistleblower stories don't end well. The sacrifices of these individuals are much too unappreciated.

Third, not long ago I wrote a post about the need for the next UNL chancellor to have research skills and to stand strong for research integrity. The four candidates recently interviewing for the job appear to qualify on the former but how they view the latter is an appropriate and unanswered question. Research universities like UNL must not act like federal agencies, which are customarily captured over time by the interest groups they are supposed to regulate. Do the four chancellor candidates have a record of standing up for research integrity, even when the research is not popular with powerful lobbies?

The inspector general at USDA will review the Lundgren case, but inspectors general in the federal government have a spotty record when it comes to cracking down on their own agencies. For one thing, an agency secretary is not required to act on inspector general findings and recommendations; many go ignored. The integrity of the research process at universities, conversely, has traditionally been safeguarded by peer-review across institutions. But in recent years this too has been threatened by universities so eager to get research dollars from interest groups that they might as well hang out a Research For Sale sign. Does anyone doubt that the interest groups offended by the Lundgren research are plying universities with money to counter his findings? Does anyone doubt that university researchers, under great pressure to bring in research dollars, are usually able to come up with findings that comport to interest group wishes? If there are doubts, take it from a former federal researcher and research administrator: these things happen across the research spectrum.

Much has been made of a recent bill in the Nebraska legislature, introduced on behalf of the university board of regents, that would allow the regents and the president to conduct chancellor searches behind closed doors, so the public does not know who might be applying and who might be in contention. There are plausible arguments in favor of this approach but the passage of the bill would further limit the public's ability (let alone the faculty's) to ask questions about the views and records of candidates on challenges to research integrity. Those in the legislature skeptical of further excluding the public from the selection process might at least propose, in return, a beefing up of the state's enforcement of other disclosure, accountability, and auditing standards with regard to higher education, which currently is woefully inept.