Monday, March 17, 2014

David Wright: OASH "is secretive, autocratic and unaccountable."

David Wright has resigned as director of the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Research Integrity. In his letter of resignation, obtained by Science Insider, Wright blames a dysfunctional Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH), which also houses OHRP.

[Kaiser, Joceyln. "Top U.S. Scientific Misconduct Official Quits in Frustration With Bureaucracy." Science Insider, March 12, 2014.]

Science Insider posts Wright's February 25 resignation letter to Dr. Howard Koh, Assistant Secretary for Health. Wright explains:

The organizational culture of OASH's immediate office is seriously flawed, in my opinion. The academic literature over the last twenty-five years on successful organizations highlights several characteristics: transparency, power-sharing or shared decision-making and accountability. If you invert these principles, you have an organization (OASH in this instance), which is secretive, autocratic and unaccountable.

He continues:

The sociologist Max Weber observed in the early 20th century that while bureaucracy is in some instances an optimal organizational mode for a rationalized, industrial society, it has drawbacks. One is that public bureaucracies quit being about serving the public and focus instead on perpetuating themselves. This is exactly my experience with OASH. We spend exorbitant amounts of time in meetings and in generating repetitive and often meaningless data and reports to make our precinct of the bureaucracy look productive. None of this renders the slightest bit of assistance to ORI in handling allegations of misconduct or in promoting the responsible conduct of research. Instead, it sucks away time and resources that we might better use to meet our mission. Since I've been here I've been advised by my superiors that I had "to make my bosses look good." I've been admonished: "Dave, you are a visionary leader but what we need here are team players." Recently, I was advised that if I wanted to be happy in government service, I had to "lower my expectations." The one thing no one in OASH leadership has said to me in two years is 'how can we help ORI better serve the research community?' Not once.

And, he asks,

Is OASH the proper home for a regulatory agency such as ORI? OASH is a collection of important public health offices that have agendas significantly different from the regulatory roles of ORI and OHRP. You've observed that OASH operates in an "intensely political environment." I agree and have observed that in this environment decisions are often made on the basis of political expediency and to obtain favorable "optics." There is often a lack of procedural rigor in this environment. I discovered recently, for example, that OASH operates a grievance procedure for employees that has no due process protections of any kind for respondents to those grievances. Indeed, there are no written rules or procedures for the OASH grievance process regarding the rights and responsibilities of respondents. By contrast, agencies such as ORI are bound by regulation to make principled decisions on the basis of clearly articulated procedures that protect the rights of all involved. Our decisions must be supported by the weight of factual evidence. ORI's decisions may be and frequently are tested in court. There are members of the press and the research community who don't believe ORI belongs in an agency such as OASH and I, reluctantly, have come to agree.

As Wright notes, OHRP is something of a sister office to ORI, a regulatory agency lost in a political division. The secrecy, inefficiency, low expectations, and lack of due process he observed at ORI could well explain some of the problems with the federal regulation of human subjects protections.

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