Did the University of Washington Just Cover Up Research Misconduct?
Written by Roger Pielke, Jr.
A University of Washington review committee has cleared Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, the pediatric neurosurgeon and co-chairman of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, who was harshly criticized in a congressional report in May over alleged attempts to influence a grant selection process.
In a letter to the UW medical school’s dean, members of the committee wrote they concluded Ellenbogen “did not attempt in any improper way to influence the selection or award process for the NIH (National Institutes of Health) research grant to be funded by the NFL” or violate any other ethical boundaries in advocating for additional funding.
ESPN has more details. The conclusion of the UW report is mistaken in important respects and is compromised by a clear institutional conflict of interest. This post explains.
The most important mistake is that Ellenbogen did indeed participate in trying to influence the “selection or award process.” This is clearly documented in both the Democrats report and the Republicans request for an Inspector General investigation of the whole situation, sent to NIH earlier this week (here in PDF). That letter includes the following new information about a phone call between Ellenbogen and Dr. Walter Koroshetz, NIH official responsible for administering the grant process using the NFL’s donated funds:
Much of the discussion of this issue has centered on whether or to what degree Ellebogen sought to redirect funds from BU to other awardees. In his defense, Ellenbogen argues that his role in the process was not to de-fund the opposing group, but to explore if more funds could be obtained from the NFL so that an additional group might be funded.
The BU part of the story has captured attention, but it is largely irrelevant to the issue of whether Ellenbogen acted improperly. Here is all you need to know:
- Ellenbogen was a party to a grant in the competition;
- Ellenbogen was representing the funder, the NFL;
- Ellenbogen was speaking to Koroshetz about the grant process.
- Confidentiality – it is not permitted for the NIH official to be discussing the award process with members of the pubic (like the NFL HNS committee). The NIH peer review process is described here. Confidentiality is described here. The relevant policies are here.
- Post-submission materials. The NIH places strict limitations on what information might be considered in a grant process award proposals have been submitted. That policy is described here. It was completely ignored by all in this case.
- Appeals process – NIH does have a formal process of appeal and grievance for funding decisions. That process is described here. Neither Ellenbogen nor his NFL peers used this process.