Thursday, August 18, 2016
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Date: 13th August 2016
To Whom It May Concern:
Subject: False allegations against Kristofer Helgen regarding Mt Kenya Expedition in 2015
It has come to my notice that Dr Kristofer Helgen is facing allegations of misconduct from Smithsonian management regarding our Mt Kenya expedition (Roosevelt Re-survey project) in Kenya in 2015. This has shocked me because:
1. I was and I still am the project’s Kenyan counterpart PI at the sponsoring Kenyan institution (National Museums Kenya, NMK), and I was thus an integral part of the project planning and implementing team, and I worked with due diligence to follow all relevant laws and policies and guide the project accordingly.
2. As part of the project leadership, I have never received any communications from the Smithsonian or from Kenyan institutions/persons requesting for a statement to confirm/dispel accusations against Kris regarding Kenyan samples and permissions.
3. As far as I can see, there is no Kenyan institution accusing Kris of misconduct, rather, the accusations are generated within USA by Smithsonian specifically.
I’m deeply shocked and saddened that Kris has been subjected to not one but at least two separate investigations on the same case, for the last 9-months, by SI officials who didn’t find it necessary to consult the Kenyan sponsor, Co-PI, and co-organizer over these ridiculous allegations. This is as disrespectful as it is flawed. Are these investigating persons genuinely after the truth on this case? Or is the case against Kris really about the expedition in Kenya, or are there other motivations by Smithsonian parties? These are the questions my mind has been grappling with since I received the news.
While I find it distasteful to try to answer such obviously false incriminations against Kris, I wish to force myself to speak to these allegations in order to defend his honour as he has done no wrong. I first briefly highlight legal procedures of doing research in Kenya, because Smithsonian officials involved likely have very limited understanding of these matters.
A foreigner intending to undertake research in Kenya has to find an affiliation in a local institution competent in the discipline of that research. In this case, Kris applied and obtained affiliations with NMK (my employing institution). He went further to apply for affiliation with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
With affiliation, one can then apply for government of Kenya research permit under National Council for science and Technology (NACOSTI). Kris did this, obtaining overall research permit/clearance by Government of Kenya (GoK).
Next, in biodiversity research, the community around the site has to give consent in what is called Prior Informed Consent (PIC). The institutions holding mandate too must give consent, in this case KWS since it is a park, provided PIC. Because biological collections were involved, Kris insisted that NMK had to give him a statement of objection or no objection before going to the field. NMK gave him greenlight.
To go and research in a protected area (national park or forest reserve) one has to be cleared by KWS and KFS respectively. Since the Mt Kenya expedition was traversing both park and reserve, Kris applied for both KWS and KFS permission to:
--Enter the Mt Kenya National park and Forest reserve
--Conduct research in these protected areas
--Collect biological samples in the protected areas
With all these permissions, Kris went further and successfully applied for overarching government of Kenya biological sample export permit, under National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).
One would expect that with overall GoK research clearance (NACOSTI) and overall GoK export permit (NEMA), the project is good to go. Kris however insisted on getting Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) with the institution legally mandated to manage biological collection-NMK. He also requested to meet NMK and KWS leaderships to ensure that even individual/personal concerns are fully addressed.
One can ask which project in Kenya has this level of permission! In my experience there is none.
These permits took us many months (nearly two years) to navigate, on top of the ridicule and emotions Kris was forced to contend with. The patience, commitment and devotion Kris put forward in order to obey local laws, institutional policies and to listen to personal concerns were formidable. Charges against Kristofer Helgen regarding this project, in view of these laws, and everyone’s familiarity with his character, have no merit.
Even though Kenya has many agencies looking after biological resources (KWS, KFS, NEMA, KARI, KEFRI), only one is mandated to take care of collections-NMK. Like in any other collection based expeditions, samples from Mt Kenya expedition are legal property of NMK (held in trust for the people of Kenya). It is for this reason that the MTA for this and others have a loan reference number. They are to be returned to NMK at expiry of loan or after concluding research. Specimen collections that Kris exported to USA are property of NMK on loan to SI. I realize suspicions have arisen about intentions over the various versions and drafts of the MTAs involved here at NMK, but I can personally vouch firsthand that Kris had no bad intentions in any action or engagement with me or NMK. I confirm as the project’s sponsor in Kenya that any issues reflect basic misunderstandings of the situation and plans. Kris regularly noted that the various MTA lists might need review and further attention from Smithsonian before export of samples to US. This all seems very strange. Why the Smithsonian should handle a loyal scientist like Kris with such distrust is shocking and very saddening to me. I see no way to understand this.
I am made to understand that Kris Helgen is also accused of illegally exporting wild dog samples from Kenya to the USA. There is no basis for this claim! The wild dog samples involved are various tissues which are NMK collections under my research program. The samples were to be analysed at University of California by myself and Prof Hillary Young, of which there is a parallel approval from University of California. These samples are of course legal (why have they been called illegal?) and are NOT associated with paperwork and permissions for Mt Kenya samples, in any way! To the very best of my knowledge, these samples have not left Kenya for USA or anywhere. Kris helped us with our requests about how to handle these specimens after they were left in Nairobi by Hillary, and he did so with NMK affiliation and permission. How can Kris Helgen be accused of exporting what was not his and was never exported. He was not involved in plans or paperwork for this project. It seems like this is a strange premise meant to pour suspicion on Kris.
It really shocks to hear that Kris Helgen is suspended and is considered for sacking because he is suspected to have tried/attempted to obstruct KWS officer from inspecting the samples collected on the expedition. Whereas it is me who picked a phone and called KWS officer, Priscillar, inviting her to catalogue our samples, it is actually Kris who instructed me to do so. How can he invite this person if he intends to “hide” what should be inspected!! There was never a plan to open frozen tanks for good reasons everyone understands. Are investigators really after the truth in this case? This is an imaginary charge.
The idea championed by Dr Molly McDonough to study genomics or transcriptome of small mammals was associated with two conditions: a) muscle tissues were to be extracted within one minute of knocking down the animal and putting straight to the liquid nitrogen, b) the samples were to be protected from thermal shock. This idea was hatched in middle camp (where Molly and I were based) but enjoyed support in all the 3 camps including by Kris and Hillary. The concern that sample ‘inspection’ by KWS employee could compromise integrity of these samples was therefore discussed in a meeting where everybody attended in the lower camp, and was discussed between Kris, Hillary, and KWS leadership in advance. Everyone was aware of this plan. How this issue has become an accusation toward Kris who was in Australia and how it has become painted as a plan to hide samples from KWS officer is unfathomable.
I categorically and emphatically state that the charges pressed against Dr Kristofer Helgen are baseless, have no merit and are untrue. If investigation had professional aim and respect for Kenyan situation, they would contact me as partner scientist in Kenya. This could have happened almost a year ago and I could explain situation to exonerate Kris, instead he has suffered.
I also wish to reiterate that a report on the Roosevelt Resurvey Project is long overdue for submission to NEMA and NACOSTI here in Kenya. As the Kenyan counterpart for this project, this puts me under a lot of pressure to submit the reports. We cannot proceed because Smithsonian staff and review have blocked any study or further export of specimens. This is damaging to investment from NMK and all partners and making my situation challenging.
I would have thought that everyone knows Kris never breaks rules and is loyal to his museum. He is a senior mammalogist deserving respect. I am appalled by his treatment. I appeal to the leadership of NMNH-SI to at long last look with sense at the true picture, and allow Kris to continue with his research, especially on the Roosevelt samples so that he can send us the report and we can maintain good faith partnerships and move on with the science from this important and long planned expedition and collaboration.
Finally, I advise, as Curator of Mammals at NMK and the Kenyan co-PI in the project that if Smithsonian continues to pursue action against Kris under false pretence, I must insist that NMNH is required to repatriate all the specimens back to Kenya immediately to enable further analysis and reporting. I hope the investigating committee will choose the path of truth and justice over malice and rumour.
Curator and Research Scientist
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
KRIS HELGEN CASE: ANATOMY OF A BOTCHED INVESTIGATION (AND SOME COOL SCIENCE, BUT HELGEN CAN'T TALK ABOUT IT)
Credit: Photo courtesy of Norman Lim
But there is one researcher who is not being allowed to discuss it: Kris Helgen, one of the two corresponding authors. The reason is that Helgen has been on administrative leave from the NMNH since late May, and is under investigation for alleged research misconduct while on an expedition he was leading in Kenya. Yesterday, in an article in The Verge, I reported on a month-long investigation of the charges, which include attempting to export samples of an endangered species out of Kenya without proper permits. In that article, I concluded that the allegations were almost certainly false, and were more likely the result of--at the very least--misunderstandings and misinterpretations on the part of members of Helgen's staff, who were his chief accusers. (I was happy to see that the Washington Post picked up the story, in an article by its star science reporter, Joel Achenbach.)
Helgen is not supposed to talk to the press while the disciplinary proceedings continue. I asked Sarah Goforth, the assistant director for communications at the NMNH, whether they would make an exception since Helgen is one of two corresponding authors on the paper and his Smithsonian email is listed there (which he is not allowed to use while on administrative leave.) It took Goforth some time to get me an answer on that, but it finally came earlier today. No exception: "Dr. Helgen is unavailable for comment."
But co-author William Murphy described Helgen's role on the paper to me, and agreed to let me quote him, which I will do in full:
"Kris is a co-leader of the colugo project, which began more than seven years ago. He led and facilitated all of the museum tissue sampling at the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity in Singapore. Without this genetic and morphological sampling we could not have accomplished the museomics component of our study (Figs 3 and 4 in our paper), and we would not have obtained the evidence that colugos have been vastly underestimated in terms of their species and population genetic diversity. He aided in analyzing and interpreting the colugo dataset and played central roles in all decisions made as part of this project. The project simply would not have been accomplished without him."
In other words, Helgen may be down, but, scientifically at least, he's not out.
I am grateful to my terrific editors at The Verge, science editor Elizabeth Lopatto and Nilay Patel, the Editor-in-Chief, for letting me have nearly 4000 words to tell the story of Helgen's case as best I could--nearly double the original assigned length. Yet believe it or not, there are more things to say about it, and I want to lay them out here. While my story in The Verge may seem to some to have an advocacy tone, in fact, as I explain a bit more below, I did not start out thinking he was innocent of the charges against him. At first I thought I had a disturbing story about scientific misconduct. But as I looked into it, strong evidence emerged that pointed in a different direction, towards Helgen's likely innocence. If the story tilts that way, it's because of what my reporting uncovered, and not any inherent bias on my part. I have never met Kris Helgen; but I admit that I hope to one day.
Was the investigation of the charges fair and impartial? Clearly not.
I will refer readers to the original article for a list of the allegations and the responses to them that have been made by Helgen's supporters. The key thing I want to emphasize here is the shoddiness of the investigation conducted by Helgen's department chair, ornithologist Gary Graves. This is summarized in an 8-page document called a Proposal to Remove. I will simply say that I am intimately familiar with its contents. I have been a journalist for 38 years, and I have done a lot of investigative work during that time. I don't know how experienced Graves is in doing investigations--a task perhaps more appropriately left to professional investigators from the Smithsonian's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which earlier cleared Helgen--but the allegations outlined in the Proposal to Remove are supported by incomplete and clearly biased evidence.
There are three charges. Let me take the second two first. Charge no. 2 specifies that Helgen attempted to export samples of the endangered wild dog to the United States from Kenya. This is a serious charge because it involves U.S. law, including possibly, according to the document, the Endangered Species Act (although nobody alleges that actual animals were being exported or that they were harmed) and the Lacey Act, which concerns the import or export of materials that violate foreign laws. As I point out in the story, these wild dog samples belonged not to Helgen but to Hillary Young, his former postdoc and now an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Graves contends that neither Helgen nor Young had the proper permits to export these samples. In the end, the samples were not exported because of confusion about the permits with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) (the OIG report concluded that such confusion was behind most of the problems that came up later.) However, in on the record comments to me cited in my story, Hillary Young explained what had happened and why Helgen was trying to help her export these samples.
Did Gary Graves at any time during his investigation contact Young for clarification of events, and to seek possible exculpatory evidence for Kris Helgen, as would be expected of a fair investigator? He did not, according to her statements to me, and nothing in the detailed charge sheet indicates anything to the contrary. Nor does the charge sheet make any reference to additional important documentation about Young's wild dog samples that Graves and museum officials had available before he set down his conclusions.
In charge no. 3, Graves accuses Helgen of instructing his staff to hide samples from a KWS inspector. As I point out in the story, this was most likely due to a misunderstanding during email communication between Helgen and his staff while Helgen was in Australia. Graves refers to these emails in the Proposal to Remove, emails which I myself have seen (they were copied to about 7 members of the expedition team, not very smart if Helgen was trying to do something improper.) But Graves's reference to these emails, in this reporter's opinion, uses the worst kind of cherrypicking imaginable to arrive at what can only be considered a preconceived conclusion. Moreover, Graves never contacted Kenyan mammalogist Bernard Agwanda or other expedition members who knew a lot about what was going on in Kenya during these events and who, again, could have provided exculpatory evidence for Helgen.
As I point out in the story, the chief accusers behind charges 2 and 3 were three of Helgen's staff members at the museum, Darrin Lunde, Esther Langan, and Nicole Edmison. Graves did not talk to anyone, as far as I can determine, outside of museum staff, with one possible exception. I point out in the story that Lunde and Langan were openly expressing their unhappiness with Helgen over various museum and expedition issues from the very beginning of the expedition, and to everyone within earshot (I spoke to a number of expedition members who were direct witnesses to this.)
So, the evidence suggests that Graves was relying almost entirely on witnesses with a demonstrated animosity towards Helgen; and, as I point out in the story, he did not interview nor attempt to contact any of the expedition co-leaders or other members of the expedition who might have presented different facts or viewpoints.
The case of the copied signature.
In my story, I say that the evidence for charges 2 and 3 were very flimsy. That leaves charge no. 1, the allegation that Helgen copied the signature of NMNH associate director for science Maureen Kearney onto an export document without her knowledge and permission, as potentially the most "serious" allegation. I make clear in the story that this is the perception of some researchers. However, this charge, according to Helgen supporters knowledgeable of what actually happened, is just as flimsy as the others. Kearney had signed a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) for some of the specimens in advance, but during the scramble at the end of the expedition to prepare samples for export a number of changes had to be made on it, and other versions prepared; other members of Helgen's staff, including at least one of the accusers, were reportedly among those who made changes. In the end the document with Kearney's copied signature was not used to export samples (apparently because Helgen was not satisfied that the paperwork passed muster), even though Helgen's supporters insist that he had intended to get Kearney's approval if it was used.
In talking to NMNH researchers sympathetic to Helgen, and to outside researchers such as Victoria Museum mammal curator Kevin Rowe, who is quoted in my story, I was told that such complex situations are common. My conclusion is that the signature charge represents a tempest in a teapot, and is again probably linked to a preconceived and biased case against Helgen. As Rowe and others pointed out to me, if NMNH and Smithsonian officials had given more support to Helgen and the expedition in dealing with the KWS and other Kenyan authorities, all of this might have been avoided. (Some NMNH sources have suggested to me that some museum officials were half-hoping the expedition would fail, as a comeuppance for Helgen's audacity in mounting it and his rapid rise at the museum; I am simply reporting here what they have said, but I hope that is not true.)
But did Graves talk to Bernard Agwanda, who had intimate knowledge of how all this worked, or to Hillary Young, about the circumstances under which samples were prepared for export and the attempts to cover those exports with proper permitting? Again, no. Did he talk to KWS authorities about what happened? I don't know, but according to sources familiar with the Proposal to Remove, it does not mention any such interviews or evidence from that agency.
What is the prosecution's Theory of the Case?
When lawyers present a case at trial, they usually give a succinct summary of what it is all about, called a Theory of the Case. It normally includes a statement about the motivation of the accused, because intent is a major factor in determining guilt or innocence. What motivation for illegally and improperly exporting samples from Kenya does Graves provide in his charge sheet? None whatsoever. Did Helgen want to export these samples because a new species of mammal had been discovered that would boost his stellar scientific career even higher and allow him to hold a press conference or publish a hot paper in a major journal? Was Helgen risking his entire career to help his former postdoc Hillary Young get wild dog samples out of the country that were legally collected and which she insists she already had permission to export? Did Helgen, in a moment of weakness, frustration, or distraction, flaunt the very rules that he had delayed the expedition a full year to insure were followed?
All of these motivations are possible, but they are not plausible, and I trust that most readers will forgive my ironic tone. Yet Graves presents no idea, no theory, no motivation on Helgen's part that would explain all this--at least none that he was willing to express in his 8-page, single-spaced document. But he and others have been expressing themselves in other ways, which I will now turn to.
Is "confidentiality" designed to protect the accused employee or the institution?
During the preparation of my story for The Verge, I received a number of sanctimonious statements from NMNH and Smithsonian officials about the confidentiality of the disciplinary process and how that was designed to protect the accused employee. A similar statement was provided to the Washington Post when it asked for comment, and to me by Gary Graves as cited in the story. Let's cut to the chase on this one. Are the NMNH and the Smithsonian really concerned about Helgen's privacy rights, or is secrecy a good way to do whatever they want behind closed doors?
I did not find out about this case from Kris Helgen. Before I started working on this story, I had no idea who he was, since mammals are not part of my normal science writing beat. I found out from someone I had come into contact with who is not at the museum, who had heard rumors from people inside the museum--including curators who are part of the middle echelon of the hierarchy there.
How were such rumors spreading if the sanctity of the confidential process was being observed? The rumors were inaccurate, but they still had to come from somewhere--almost certainly, of course, from people who did know at least something. I pointed out in the story that I had clear evidence that Gary Graves was the origin of at least some of the stories, and I stand by my reporting on that.
But I also found that the researchers who knew, or thought they knew, the most about the case were at the American Museum of Natural History, where Lunde and Edmison had previously worked. One AMNH researcher told me emphatically, off the record, that they thought Helgen was almost for sure guilty. Where did this person get their information? What made them so sure? I will leave it to readers to consider the possibilities, and the terrible damage that rumors can do to someone's reputation when they have no way to defend themselves.
(btw, I am not trying to imply that any of these colleagues of Helgen's deliberately tried to frame him, so they should not start running to call their lawyers. I am simply saying that the established facts show there was clear bias in the process.)
What's next for Helgen?
Sources in the museum tell me that many top administrators are away right now, either on vacation or doing other things. But of course they knew this story was coming for some time. I don't know what will happen next, or what Helgen's ultimate fate will be; he has a team of attorneys who seem to be fighting hard for him. But as a reporter, I am determined that whatever is done will be done under full public scrutiny. Secrecy has already played its insidious, corrupting role.
Friday, April 29, 2016
Brian Richmond steps down as a guest editor of Journal of Human Evolution special issue on Koobi Fora
Subsequent to the vote, however, Richmond offered to step down as guest editor to save the special issue. I am now informed by JHE special issues editor Mark Teaford, in a statement copied below, that the issue will go forward under two other guest editors. In an email to me, Richmond declined to comment on the matter.
The anthropology community is actively struggling with the consequences of the allegations against Richmond, who has not been allowed to work on the AMNH premises while the current investigation is going on (it has been dragging on since last December.) At stake are his collaborations with other researchers and about $1.3 million in National Science Foundation grants on which he is still either principal investigator or co-PI.
The statement provided by Mark Teaford: