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Smithsonian scientist will keep his job after deeply flawed misconduct investigation

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He will, however, face sanctions

Smithsonian

Kris Helgen, the star mammalogist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) accused of research misconduct during an expedition in Kenya last year, will keep his job, despite a recommendation from his supervisor that he be fired. But he has been suspended for two weeks without pay — a serious black mark in federal government service — and museum officials have stripped him of his responsibilities as head of its mammal division for a full year.

helgen-headshot

Helgen says he is "glad" that NMNH director Kirk Johnson decided that the recommendation to terminate him "was not warranted." (This is his first public statement on the affair since it began in November.) His legal team, however, will now appeal the suspension to officials within the Smithsonian who are "outside of the limited circle of internal museum administrators who have handled the case over the last year," he says. Today’s ruling was the result of what Helgen calls "a badly managed and damaging investigation" which came after the Smithsonian’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) had already cleared him of the major charges last December.

Johnson’s decision comes despite considerable evidence, reported by The Verge last month, that the investigation into three charges against Helgen was flawed and incomplete. Helgen stood accused of three things: First, that he had copied and pasted the signature of the NMNH’s associate director for science onto a specimen export form without her permission. Second, that he had tried to export specimens of the African wild dog without proper permits from Kenyan authorities. And finally, he was accused of instructing his staff to hide specimens from an employee of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Johnson upheld the first accusation, and part of the second. The third charge was dismissed for lack of evidence.

This decision is the result of a second investigation, following the OIG inquiry that had cleared him. Yet The Verge’s inquiry found that the chief investigator, ornithologist Gary Graves, chair of the museum’s vertebrate zoology department, failed to interview key witnesses to the events in question: the researcher to whom the wild dog samples actually belonged, and a Kenyan colleague who was helping to deal with the necessary permits. Johnson seemingly ignored protests from Helgen and his legal team that these witnesses were key to understanding what had happened.

"There are no grounds for this duration of suspension, or for limiting my duties.""There are no grounds for this decision of suspension, or for limiting my duties," Helgen says. Indeed, Helgen says, he and his legal team "presented evidence to the Smithsonian that Dr. Johnson was not an impartial party in this case, but he did not recuse himself from making this decision." That evidence, which Helgen and his legal team may make public at a later time, was not taken into account, he says.

"It seems that the NMNH administration never actually needed to fire Kris Helgen," says one museum scientist who asked not to be identified. "Instead, by prolonging the witch-hunt, they ruined his reputation."

Museum officials declined to comment on the decision, on the grounds that it is a confidential personnel matter. But some NMNH researchers speculated that Johnson, stuck with a botched investigation conducted by one of its senior scientists, had to save face for the institution by disciplining Helgen, even though the evidence for wrongdoing was flimsy.

Helgen will go back to work on September 16th, after his two-week suspension is up. But when he returns, Gary Graves will no longer be his supervisor. Museum officials have decided that Graves, who was scheduled to step down as chair on September 30th, will be relieved of those duties immediately. He will be replaced by NMNH researcher Jon Coddington, effective today. Unlike Graves, Coddington is highly popular in the museum. Museum officials are keeping silent about the reasons for the early changeover, but many NMNH scientists welcome it. "This is a good move," says one department member (who spoke on the condition of anonymity), because the charges against Helgen sparked controversy and dissent between his supporters and his detractors. "We need someone with experience to guide us through what is going to be a tough period."