Sunday, April 8, 2007

War on Science pt 3:The dogma of NIH: how internal politics and extreme othodoxy hinder good science

So if you have read about me in this blog you know that I went through a very bad political battle at NIH that pretty much ended in the removal of my boss, a world renowned malaria researcher from his position in the department at NIH, which subsequently made me leave as well. The big problem I saw is that NIH is so wrapped up in its own prestige and appearance that it has become overly political and no longer open to new fresh ways of doing things. And woe to anyone who questions the validity of data collected by "accepted" methods.
The story of my job at NIH was this. The department was moving into Stage 2 clinical trials on their malaria vaccine. They were going to be giving trial vaccines to large populations in Africa and were going to need large scale testing on those vaccines through ELISA to see how potent or effective at different time points the vaccine was. To that end large scale testing with automation was needed. Also it was necessary to move towards GLP (good laboratory practices) compliance since the FDA would be involved in approving the testing methods as well as looking to see the results as well. One group (immunology) had been riddled with issues of laziness and outright lying and incompetence, including getting inconsistent ELISA data. Believing he could never get the right mindset from a group that had time and again failed to produce my boss reached from outside to hire someone who understood not just GLP issues but high throughput ELISA testing I was hired. The old "manual" methods allowed one person to test at Max about 6 plates with 72 samples and controls per day. The new automated methods would increase that number to about 18 plates with 72 samples per day. But it was labor intensive, and certain people felt that a couple hours of concentrated work was "too difficult". My boss is still maybe the most brilliant person I have ever met, and if not a genius surely close. For certain, he was a innovative thinker, a kind of person who "thinks outside the box". Most of his colleagues were incapable of understanding all of his work and I think it made people fearful. I couldn't understand it, at first anyway, but saw the potential. The more we worked the more I understood and the more brilliant I saw his schemes were. However, it became rapidly apparent that my results could not be replicated by the old manual methods. Because my techniques were different than the "standard"way of doing things they tried to attack my results on that basis. My boss however repeatedly said that was NOT the problem as he had observed my techniques and found them acceptable. I became more and more convinced that the old methods were fundamentally flawed. What I did not realize is that would call into question years of data generated by the immunology group and out of the loop or not, they would not tolerate a newbie tech with no phD and no previous research experience doing that. They told lies about me to the other head of the department who was very orthodox but also somewhat senile and not aware of all going on. They made me report to someone else, involuntarily on my bosses part, someone whom my boss and I made the fatal mistake of trusting. She immediately stopped my project because of too many "problems". Yes there were some bugs to be worked out still but overall was going well. Nope. They couldn't reproduce the data he used in his innovated spread sheets for one with their old statistical methods unless they spent hours "fitting the data". How anyone could not understand that this is a form of data manipulation is impossible for me to understand but I think there were some who didn't see it this way. However, I am now convinced that my new boss knew exactly what she was doing with the data and didn't care. Not long after she became my boss she started "retraining me with the correct methods". When I asked why, she said everyone needed to be "certified". When I said the point was to establish new methods she said just in case at first but when pushed I said I had already been certified in methods by my boss she said (to both my and my ex-bosses shock) "Allan (my old boss) doesn't know how ELISA's should be done here". This is a jumped up tech with a Masters saying she knew more than my old boss whom had 26 years of field research including years of lab work both here and in his native country of Australia. How's that for arrogance? Anyway she also told me at one point that even though the stats on my work were perfect that my techniques were still bad even if it didn't show up on paper? Huh? How do you argue with MY WAY IS THE ONLY WAY NO MATTER WHAT THE DATA says. Anyway, there was some other stuff going on including at least one phD pretending to "believe" in my methods (lying to me and Allan) while undermining my work. Finally the deception plus the fact that he was considered a "bully" for strong arming the numb nuts in the department to get things done got him pushed out for "improper behavior" including firing and demoting people improperly. Imagine, trying to get rid of people who weren't doing their jobs! Anyway, when I found out I told everyone I was leaving as soon as I found a new job. That didn't satisfy, and they went out of their way to make my life miserable, and also did things like changing spreadsheets so I was incapable of generating decent data, and then hiding or ignoring my data while generating duplicate data using the "correct manual methods" while reprogramming the robot to fit their beliefs. It came down to me having to leave before I found anything because the stress of the dishonesty and the "tricks" were taking a toll on my health. To this day, I worry about the health of the children being vaccinated. From the little I have heard no valid ELISA data is being generated (although THEY think so) and I worry about the safety of the participants in the clinical trial, since ELISA's are key in establishing both safety and potency of the vaccines. Because I caused a ruckus leaving, screaming long and hard about all the bad science being done, I have now been labelled much like Allan, a troublemaker. Allan has tenure at NIH due to his senior scientific standing so can't be fired but is in essence in exile because they don't believe he can "properly" manage people. He now does several things with NIH including computer modeling on the spread of diseases and it gives him the opportunity to just sit and think which he enjoys. Plus like me the confrontations with the idiots in the department was taking a toll on his health (we once had a conversation where we were competing to see who had the worse BP issues-he won, my values were high but his, pre treatment were much worse!)So while damaged he is okay to some extent. And even though he is persona non grata at the department he still interacts positively with some of the others (and let me say there were MANY fine, fine people who are still there) on occasion. I on the other hand, am blacklisted and although I briefly made an appearance there late, am not welcome by the powers that be as well. Sadly, Allan, who is a fine person, mentor and friend and like a father to me, seems to have so many guilt issues with what happened to me (he always felt it was his fault, what I went through- both of us though made many many mistakes) that he can't bring himself to interact with me directly unless cornered (not a "touchy-feelie" type person doesn't help either I suppose) and won't even discuss me with others because its too painful. I am trying to reestablish contact with him, but its not easy, but someday soon. He will be more than happy to be a good reference for me, but talking or seeing painful. Here is someone who outside of the good natured jokes, was very good at the unreadable detached expression. Except now, when I am brought up...

Anyway, I thought perhaps this awfulness was an exception at NIH. The intensity and level of it perhaps was not typical but this "only one way is correct" type of attitude is common but its also fostered! I heard about similar nonsense with ELISA in a totally different department, and from what I can tell the ELISA's are being manipulated to make the data look better than it really is. To quote a friend of mine who is dealing with that ELISA and knows my story well "I would not trust any so-called breakthrough at NIH until at least 5 other scientific agencies replicate the results". And that my friends, is a very sad state of affairs in a world where the scientific method is under attack from all sides

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