Administrators and the Responsible Conduct of Research
Case Study:
The Price of Collaboration

The Price of Collaboration

Dr. March walks into the office of Ethel Nightingale, and drops a packet of papers into her "in" box. Ethel takes a quick look and sees that it is a reimbursement request for the meeting that March organized among the group of researchers collaborating on a project funded by the NIH. Glancing a bit farther down the page, Ethel pauses, and then gets up and goes to look for Dr. March in her office.

"Dr. March, can I ask you a couple questions about this reimbursement for your meeting last week?" "Sure, Ethel, as long as it won't take too long. I've got a meeting in a few minutes, " replies Dr. March.

"I'm wondering if there's a typo here. It says you spent $6,000 for two days' accommodations for 10 people. This seems much too high to charge to the NIH grant. I thought that the point of using the institute's Inn and Conference Center was that you could save money by not having your colleagues stay at local hotels."

"Well, it could have been less, but we wanted to be sure we wouldn't be disturbed, so rather than using just one meeting room, I rented the entire west wing of the center. Here," Dr. March says, taking the papers from Ethel, "let me just increase the number attending to 20, and that should take care of any cost questions the bean-counters might have.

"I don't think the accounting office will approve this expense," Ethel responds tentatively, "and the charge for a case of wine will never fly; the NIH doesn't allow charges for alcohol on its grants."

"So, just make it a charge for a catered meal. Be creative. The important thing is that the meeting went beautifully and that's critical at the start of a successful collaboration. We all got to know each other, generated some great ideas, and got a lot of planning done. Don't worry, the NIH will get its money's worth, and that's all that really matters. Go ahead and do whatever you need to do to make this work," concludes Dr. March as she hands the papers back to Ethel. "Right now, I've got to get to my meeting."

Case Discussion
Interests of the Affected Parties
Ethical Issues

Dr. March's actions suggest that she sees a conflict between her obligation to follow the NIH policies and her obligation to conduct the collaborative research project in the most effective manner possible. She also seems to feel that there is a conflict between her interest in spending time conducting the research and her obligations to oversee the grant with honesty and to support Ethel's administrative role. Right now, Ethel is confronted with a conflict between an obligation to Dr. March to do as she is directed (and thereby facilitate the research), and an obligation to the institute and the funding agency to follow their policies and complete her work with honesty. Ethel finds herself with conflicts between her interests in maintaining a good relationship with Dr. March and facilitating the research project in the short term, and the longer term obligations Ethel has to support research by March, and at the institute as a whole, by helping to ensure that the relevant policies are followed and honesty is maintained.

Consequences of Actions

If Ethel simply proceeds as Dr. March has directed her, she would quickly finish with filing the reimbursement and all might seem fine, but only for a while. In addition, Ethel will be aware that the information filed is not completely truthful, and this could cause her worry and possibly a diminishment of her self-esteem. In the longer term, some of the true facts are likely to come to light when someone takes a closer look at the forms, or if an audit is carried out. In the end, there would be serious negative consequences for all those involved. Ethel could even lose her job.

If, on the other hand, Ethel immediately goes to the department or division head and openly accuses March of dishonesty in the expenditure of grant funds, there is likely to be an uproar among those in the department, and Ethel could still lose her job.

However, if Ethel does not go ahead with filing the reimbursement, but instead engages Dr. March in further conversation making her aware of the details of the policies and what has happened to people and institutions who have violated them, Ethel may be able to convince Dr. March to consider other solutions to the situation. It might also be helpful if Ethel to consulted a fellow administrator who could give her ideas about how to impress on Dr. March the seriousness of the requirements of institute and NIH policies.