Dog eat dog: is a troubled expedition to Kenya causing the Smithsonian to devour its young?
A star scientist stands accused of misconduct, but colleagues say he’s being railroaded6
This time last year, Kris Helgen was climbing high. Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, DC, was about to lead a team of scientists up Mt. Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa after Kilimanjaro. The team was following in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt, whose great East Africa expedition of 1909–1910, co-sponsored by the Smithsonian, gathered some 23,000 natural history specimens for the museum. It was an ambitious, some say audacious, project. But today 36-year-old Helgen, who was one of the fastest rising young stars in mammalogy, is in danger of losing his job. On July 1st, after a lengthy investigation into charges that he had engaged in research misconduct while in Kenya, Helgen’s department chair recommended that he be fired.
To some researchers, including some within the museum, this drastic conclusion must mean that Helgen did something seriously wrong. But to others, including his many defenders, the affair is an object lesson in what happens when a bright young person — in any profession — rises too fast and challenges slow-changing institutions with entrenched bureaucrats, like the Smithsonian and the NMNH. "What happens when the younger scientist already has more accomplishments than his much older seniors?" asks one NMNH scientist who asked not to be identified. "The museum has utterly failed Kris."
Certainly, that's not how Helgen and his many admirers expected things to turn out. The young researcher was already well known for numerous mammal discoveries, including the irresistible olinguito from South America, and was a veteran of many expeditions. Helgen and his American and Kenyan collaborators had spent two years planning the so-called Roosevelt Resurvey, negotiating a thicket of Kenyan laws and regulations regarding the collection and export of specimens from the country. The team would employ modern scientific methods, including DNA sequencing, to see how the ecology, biodiversity, and climate on Mt. Kenya had changed over the last century.
But soon after the expedition was over, Helgen was accused by his staff of trying to illegally export animal specimens from Kenya. Eventually the charge sheet included allegations that he had instructed his employees to hide samples from wildlife inspectors, and that he had copied a supervisor’s signature onto a document authorizing export of specimens without her knowledge or permission. Helgen and his attorney are contesting all of the charges, and a decision about his fate could come later this month.
However, The Verge’s reporting strongly suggests that the museum’s investigation was seriously flawed, for several reasons. It ignored key evidence uncovered during an earlier investigation by Smithsonian investigators, which cleared Helgen of many of the same charges. Nevertheless, when, for reasons that remain murky, a new investigation was launched, it appeared to ignore documentary evidence that could have exonerated Helgen. Perhaps most seriously, the chief investigator — the chair of Helgen’s department and his immediate supervisor — did not interview the three other co-leaders of the expedition, according to their statements to The Verge. One of the three is a Kenyan scientist who was intimately involved in arranging the necessary permits and permissions.
Meanwhile, Helgen’s plight has become the subject of extensive gossip. Although the disciplinary process is supposed to be confidential, supposedly to protect the accused employee, rumors — many of them wildly incorrect — have spread throughout the museum and the larger scientific community. They include false suggestions that Helgen and his team were caught by customs inspectors trying to smuggle animal specimens out of Kenya. The rumors have led even Helgen’s scientific admirers to wonder if he might actually be guilty.
"Kris Helgen’s published work is exemplary for its accuracy and comprehensiveness," says Ross MacPhee, a mammal expert at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. "There can be no question about the quality of his scholarship. What is in question is his conduct. I have heard so many different versions of the truth regarding incidents in Kenya that I do not know what to think. Clearly, someone is systematically lying, and it is the job of the Smithsonian’s administration to sort this out, if it can be sorted out, and make all the properly-ascertained facts public."
How could one of the world’s great museums be about to jettison one of its most mediagenic scientific stars? The names of Helgen’s accusers are well known within the NMNH; The Verge has repeatedly attempted to talk to them, but they have declined to comment. Other scientists, who did speak, suggested that an atmosphere of rivalries, jealousies, and conflicts that predated the expedition may have given rise to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of what went on in Kenya.
Science research, like any job, has a fair amount of political infighting, even at the highest level. In the case of this rising star, the rules some countries put in place to protect themselves from colonialist-style theft of resources may have been used to cut Helgen down to size. Helgen’s defenders insist he’s not guilty, but even if he is, the haphazard investigation may damage the Smithsonian’s reputation. Helgen is in many ways part of a new guard of scientists: more willing to talk to the public, rigorous and diligent in his research — and that approach seems to be threatening to some older scientists who traditionally shy away from the news media.
While the disciplinary proceedings continue, Helgen cannot speak in his own defense, says his DC-based attorney, Michael Kator of Kator, Parks, Weiser & Harris. However, Kator says, "Kris Helgen is a seasoned leader of expeditions and was not involved in any misconduct whatsoever. We are attempting to use the Smithsonian’s internal processes to have these allegations dismissed, and cannot comment further while that process is going on."
Officials at the Smithsonian and the NMNH refused to comment, saying that personnel matters at the institutions are confidential. Requests for interviews with NMNH director Kirk Johnson and the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, David Skorton, were also declined.
But to many researchers, there is no question that Helgen is innocent. Thus more than 50 scientists from around the world have written to Johnson, Skorton, and other NMNH and Smithsonian officials to express their dismay that Helgen might be fired; many have stated that he is simply not capable of being unethical. At the same time, 35 of Helgen’s former interns, students and postdoctoral researchers, out of more than 40 he has had during his short career, signed a passionate letter to the same officials, praising Helgen’s role as a mentor and the "time, energy, and devotion" he has shown to "each of his students, regardless of their gender or ethnicity."
Among Helgen’s ardent supporters is his former PhD supervisor, the noted Australian mammalogist and global warming activist Tim Flannery. "Kris was far and away the best PhD student I ever had," Flannery says. "He is exceptionally gifted as a scientist. Unfortunately, in the small world of museum science, people like Kris attract envy." Flannery adds that Helgen has an "immaculate" record from past expeditions and "is scrupulous about regulation. I remember him leaving an important collection of mammals behind in Papua New Guinea because he could not obtain a permit [to export them] in time."
Don Wilson, Helgen’s predecessor as curator of mammals at the NMNH, calls him "without a doubt the most successful and creative young mammalogist in the world." As for the allegations, Wilson adds, "I have no doubt that any decisions made by Kris were done so with the very best of intentions."
Helgen’s rise as a scientific superstar was almost as precipitous as his fall from grace at the NMNH. He belongs to a new generation of mammalogists, who find new species by combing through dusty museum collections, sequencing DNA, and mounting rugged expeditions to Africa, Asia, and South America. Born and raised in Minnesota, Helgen developed an early passion for natural history, and went on to graduate cum laude from Harvard University in 2001. After doing his PhD with Flannery, he landed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian. By 2009, when Helgen was only 29, the NMNH had appointed him as its curator in charge of the entire mammal division. His CV lists more than 100 peer reviewed publications, and he is credited with describing five new mammal genera and more than two dozen species and subspecies; he reportedly has many more species waiting in the wings.
One of Helgen’s main claims to fame was describing a new species of olingo, a small mammal related to the raccoon, which Helgen and his collaborators called the olinguito. With the help of the Smithsonian’s formidable PR machine, the extremely cute olinguito — which, according to science writer Ed Yong, "looks like someone designed the world’s cutest stuffed toy and then animated it" — got worldwide media attention when it was announced in 2013. The following year, Helgen and his coworkers used ancient DNA technology and old fashioned anatomy to figure out that two species of monk seals, one recently extinct and the other an endangered species, deserved to be put in their own genus called Neomonachus, the first time in 140 years that a new seal genus had been recognized.
As Helgen’s scientific and media reputation grew, some NMNH researchers and other colleagues say, so did his willingness to challenge the museum’s old guard. A pivotal episode came in early 2012, insiders say, when Helgen began raising the alarm about the poor conditions under which thousands of mammal specimens were being stored at the museum. Helgen pointed out that many of them had never been properly entered into databases, causing some to be missing or lost entirely, while other rare and precious specimens were damaged and deteriorating. One NMNH scientist told The Verge that many curators were "deeply embarrassed" by the revelations, and angry at Helgen for bringing them to the attention of museum officials.
Helgen’s key ally in bringing the problems to light was Darrin Lunde, the mammal division’s collection manager, whom Helgen had hired from the AMNH in 2010. Lunde, described by those who know him as reserved, dedicated to his work, and somewhat skeptical about the contributions of academic scientists, had a passion of his own: Theodore Roosevelt, who, in addition to being one of the US’s most colorful presidents, was also one of the nation’s most celebrated naturalists.
Lunde had been working on a book about Roosevelt for many years, his colleagues say, and so he was an eager participant in the new expedition to Kenya when it began in August 2015. So were two other mammal collection staff who worked with Lunde, Esther Langan and Nicole Edmison. Colleagues say that the three, all of whom are supervised by Helgen, form a fairly tight group. Langan was in Kenya until the expedition ended in October, although Edmison was only present for a couple of weeks at the beginning, expedition members say. By the time the adventure was over, Lunde, Langan, and Edmison were accusing Helgen of misconduct, and their testimony would go on to comprise a major part of the evidence against him.
Other expedition members, who asked not to be identified, told The Verge that Lunde and Langan in particular began making negative comments about Helgen from the very beginning of the expedition. Some of these comments, the sources say, appeared to involve disgruntlement dating from before the trek, including criticisms of Helgen’s demanding management style back at the museum; NMNH researchers who know Helgen agree that he has very high expectations of his staff. In Kenya, Lunde now began criticizing Helgen’s management of the expedition, arguing that it was badly organized. (In contrast, some outside visitors to the expedition told The Verge that it was one of the best organized expeditions they had seen.)
Expedition sources say that Lunde seemed particularly irked that Helgen was getting all the media attention for the project, especially since Lunde’s book about Roosevelt — which includes extensive material about the earlier Mt. Kenya expedition — was soon coming out. Lunde’s irritation reportedly reached a peak when an editor and photographer from National Geographic showed up in September to chronicle events, as part of an article the magazine was planning on the project. As expedition leader, Helgen received the lion’s share of attention. According to sources within NMNH, the article has been postponed pending the proceedings against Helgen; a representative for the magazine declined to comment on its plans.
In addition to Helgen, the expedition had three other co-leaders: Hillary Young, an ecologist and former postdoctoral student of Helgen’s, who is now at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB); Roland Kays, a zoologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh; and Bernard Agwanda, a mammalogist at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) in Nairobi.
Agwanda told The Verge that Helgen had to jump through many hoops to organize the expedition. "In 20 years of conducting surveys, this is the most elaborate research expedition I have ever seen," Agwanda says. "In Kenya there are an abundance of laws and different institutions," including the NMK and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), that must be consulted and give approval before such a project can proceed. "Kris went beyond what the law required," Agwanda adds. "He told us that we’re not going into the field until everything is fully legal." Indeed, sources say, Helgen delayed the start of the expedition a full year until he was confident that it was.
As the expedition drew to a close in late September 2015, the four leaders prepared to depart from Kenya for other engagements, leaving Lunde, Langan, and a smaller number of expedition members to sort through the specimens and samples collected and prepare them for export to the Smithsonian or the UCSB; some specimens would stay in the country and be sent to the NMK. The sample processing took place at the Mpala Research Center in Nanyuki, just northwest of Mt. Kenya, which had been the expedition’s headquarters.
According to several witnesses, Lunde and Lagan apparently began to think Helgen and Young were trying to export wild dog specimens illegally
That’s when the trouble really began. According to several witnesses, Lunde and Langan apparently began to think that both Helgen and Young were trying to export specimens illegally. The specimens were blood and other tissue samples that Young’s team had obtained from the African wild dog, Lycaon pictus, an endangered species.The exact chain of events is not clear, but either shortly before or after returning to the NMNH in Washington, Lunde and Langan reported their concerns to museum authorities. On November 2nd, the Smithsonian’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) opened a formal investigation into the allegations. The Verge has obtained a copy of the investigation’s final conclusions, dated December 1st. According to sources, the inquiry was based on interviews with Lunde, Langan, Helgen, and others, as well as a review of all the emails between expedition members and officials of the KWS, which was responsible for approving specimen exports.
The OIG report indicated that a review of emails between Helgen’s team and the KWS demonstrated confusion between the two groups, which was exacerbated by the "fact that KWS was relatively new to its role as the approving agency to authorize specimen exports." There were conflicting opinions among KWS staff about whether proper approval had been given for the export of certain specimens. Nevertheless, OIG concluded that it "did not find that any U.S. laws or Smithsonian Institution directives were violated due to the import of the specimens at issue."
That might have ended the affair, but it did not. For reasons that are unclear, sometime in December 2015 or early January 2016, museum officials decided to conduct a second investigation. They appointed Gary Graves, an ornithologist and chair of the museum’s vertebrate zoology department — Helgen’s direct supervisor — to carry it out. To some researchers who know both men, Graves was the wrong person to do it. For one thing, Graves, who is roughly 25 years older than Helgen, was well known to be skeptical about up-and-coming, media-friendly scientists, especially young ones.
"The personal animosity between Gary Graves and Kris should clearly have meant that [Graves] ruled himself out of acting as a senior arbiter in this process," says Alan Cooper, an ancient DNA expert at the University of Adelaide in Australia who worked at the Smithsonian earlier in his career. "This whole process appears to be unfair and inappropriate, and risks doing considerable damage to the reputation of the Smithsonian."
Graves declined to be interviewed for this story, saying that to do so would "violate the privacy rights of the employee." After a second and last appeal to Graves to discuss the case, possibly off the record, he accused The Verge’s reporter of "cyberstalking" and threatened to have him prosecuted by US authorities. Yet according to witnesses at the museum, Graves himself was the origin of at least some of the rumors about Helgen that spread within the NMNH and beyond.
On July 1st, Graves announced his decision to recommend that Helgen be fired. The recommendation, according to sources, was laid out in a formal Proposal to Remove, a document required when federal employees are facing termination. Sources familiar with the document say that it lays out three formal charges:
– That Helgen copied the signature of Maureen Kearney, the NMNH’s associate director for science, onto a document that would have allowed the transfer of specimens from Kenya to the US, without Kearney’s permission.
– That Helgen attempted to ship wild dog specimens to the US, and then later tried to get his staff to do the same, without the proper permits.
– That Helgen instructed his staff to hide wild dog specimens which had been stored in liquid nitrogen from a KWS inspector.
According to the sources, the allegations were largely based on testimony from Lunde, Langan, and Edmison (Lunde and Langan did not respond to repeated requests to discuss the issue, and Edmison, when contacted, declined to comment.) But Helgen’s supporters insist that the three seriously misunderstood or misinterpreted what they were being asked to do. It did not help that most of the instructions were coming in emails from Helgen while he was away in Australia. Moreover, the three expedition co-leaders, Young, Kays, and Agwanda, told The Verge that they were never contacted by OIG or Graves to help clarify what had happened. Several other members of the expedition who had information that could have exonerated Helgen, or put his actions in a different light, also say that they were not contacted by investigators.
For example, Young says that the wild dog samples at issue belonged to her and not to Helgen, and weren’t collected during the expedition. Rather, they had been gathered much earlier by Kenyan researchers, with proper permits, and donated to the NMK. Young had arranged to borrow some of the samples from the NMK so that she could work on them in California. But when it came time for her to leave Kenya, she says, the cooler they were stored in malfunctioned, and she was concerned that they would be ruined. So she transferred some of the samples into the expedition’s liquid nitrogen tanks and asked Helgen to ship them with the rest of the material stored there.
"There is absolutely no grounds for finding Kris responsible for any concerns" related to the export, Young concludes.
Likewise, Helgen’s supporters, including Agwanda, say that there is no truth to the accusation that he instructed his staff to hide samples from a KWS inspector. For one thing, sources familiar with it say, the KWS staff person named in the Proposal to Remove was not actually an inspector but a technician who was asked to code and label the samples so they could be readied for export. Agwanda says that it was Helgen’s idea for the KWS technician to come. "The idea that we were trying to obstruct KWS from inspecting the samples is just not true," Agwanda says. But he and some other expedition members say that since the samples were stored in liquid nitrogen, there was great concern that if the tanks were opened the samples could thaw and be ruined. "We had nothing to hide from KWS," Agwanda says. He and other sources say that an email from Helgen asking his staff to avoid the samples thawing out was misinterpreted as trying to hide them from the KWS.
Helgen’s email instructions to his staff were copied to up to seven expedition members, which his supporters say argues against the idea that he was trying to hide something. In one such email dated October 11th, which The Verge has obtained, Langan, commenting on the impending visit from KWS staff, declares that she is "not in the habit of concealing wildlife material from wildlife inspectors." Helgen responded in just over an hour writing, "Of course I am not asking you to conceal things" and calling that idea "a misunderstanding." In the same email, Helgen tells expedition members that he intends to reach out to KWS officials in Nairobi for help with exporting samples and follow "due diligence with our KWS partnership."
As for copying Kearney’s signature, some NMNH researchers sympathetic to Helgen’s plight say that, given the weak evidence for the other two charges, this one might end up being the most serious. But again, some of his defenders dispute that Helgen intended to export any samples without Kearney’s approval, and insist that researchers in remote field locations often need to prepare export documents at short notice. "This kind of thing is actually very routine," says one NMNH researcher who asked not to be identified.
The charge of copying a signature may be the most serious
Doing research in places like Kenya can be difficult for foreign scientists. A number of researchers told The Verge that the NMNH and Smithsonian have sometimes left young scientists in the lurch and looked the other way when problems come up. Kevin Rowe, senior curator of mammals at Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, says that despite the importance of specimen collection to documenting changes in biodiversity over time, the challenges of doing it mean that "fewer and fewer researchers are willing to travel the treacherous path."
For Helgen, the coming days will be treacherous indeed. He has been on administrative leave since late May and cannot use his NMNH email account to communicate with colleagues. He and his attorney have until the middle of this month to respond to the charges, and then the NMNH — most likely its director, Kirk Johnson — will decide whether to fire him or to return him to the nitty gritty of museum science. Some of his supporters remain optimistic. "I feel privileged to have played a small role in the development of this remarkable young scientist," says Don Wilson, who preceded him as curator of mammals and strongly supported his candidacy to take over the job. "I look forward to watching him add to our knowledge in myriad ways for the next several decades."
Corrections Aug. 9th, 2 PM ET: A previous version of this article erroneously used an image of a different national gallery and labeled it as the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. The photo has been changed. A previous version also erroneously stated when museum officials decided to conduct a second investigation. It was January 2016, not January 2015. The article has been updated.