This will be my last message to all of you as UNC’s vice chancellor for research.
As you have heard, yesterday I tendered my resignation as vice chancellor, and I wanted to take this opportunity to communicate a few important things to you.
First, I want to thank each one of you for the work you do for UNC-Chapel Hill and the people of our state. One of the true pleasures of this job has been working with so many talented, dedicated, and creative scientists, faculty, staff, and students. The passion you bring to your work and to making the world a better, healthier, and safer place is so inspiring. While I will be leaving this position, knowing that all of you are here doing your job each day gives me great confidence and hope in our future.
Second, I want to explain why I am stepping down. You have probably seen the news headlines about the outcome of a research misconduct investigation involving a grant proposal I submitted to the National Cancer Institute.
As you may know, when I took on the responsibilities of vice chancellor for research, I continued to serve as the PI of my lab in the Department of Genetics. I am deeply committed to the research my lab does and scientifically interacting with my incredible colleagues. I also felt this involvement would allow me to stay in touch with the day-to-day issues that affect our researchers as they go about their jobs. While the perspective it provided me was at times extremely useful – particularly in helping me understand the practical challenges of running lab operations during the pandemic – taking on both roles overextended my time.
I first submitted the proposal to NCI in 2019 and it was reviewed favorably. In March 2020, just as the pandemic was hitting the nation and the University, I learned that the proposal scored well and was near the fundable range. Time passed, and after about six months, I got word there wasn’t funding available for it, so I let it drop in the face of the pandemic. The University and the world had much more pressing issues to deal with at that point. But my lab and students felt the project was worthwhile and urged me to resubmit. So, with a short timeline before the deadline for resubmittal in 2021, I picked the proposal back up and began to address some of the comments I had received to resubmit. I felt a responsibility to my lab and did not want to let them down by not pursuing what had been a well-scored, fundable proposal.
But you cannot write a grant spending 30 minutes writing and then shifting to deal with the daily crises and responsibilities of a senior leadership position in the university, only to get back to the grant when you find another 30 minutes free.
I made a mistake in the course of fleshing out some technical details of the proposed methodology. I used pieces of text from two equipment vendor websites and a publicly available online article. I inserted them into my document as placeholders with the intention of reworking the two areas where the techniques —which are routine work in our lab — were discussed. While switching between tasks and coming back to the proposal, I lost track of my editing and failed to rework the text or cite the sources. I should stress that none of this involved the scientific inquiry proposed for funding, the data behind it, or the goals of the work.
And that brings me to my third point, because by now you might be thinking, “Well, that doesn’t sound so bad. Mistakes happen.”
But there is an important difference here. As UNC’s vice chancellor for research, I serve as UNC’s Institutional Official (IO) for ensuring research integrity and compliance with the federal regulatory framework governing research. My office investigates research misconduct, and I and the office must always be beyond reproach. It is my duty to ensure others can trust that the system treats everyone equally, without regard to position or status, and that no one is above the law. I accepted responsibility for what occurred, and the discipline I received from NIH’s Office of Research Integrity is appropriate.
And so, as much as I hate to leave all of you, I am stepping down as your vice chancellor for research. I have discussed this decision with our chancellor, and we arrived at this decision together.
My last point is simply this. I hope this experience serves as teachable moment for us all. A wake-up call to PI’s that they should not be trying to write proposals that demand concentrated and focused attention if one is under the burden of pressing administrative duties, and they should rigorously screen those proposals before submission, especially if multiple people are contributing.
At the end of the day, I am a scientist – a geneticist who studies chromatin and gene expression in diseases afflicting the human body. I will return to my lab and role as faculty in the School of Medicine. I will continue to serve as PI on my grants and continue to submit proposals to advance the science in my lab and my field. The School of Medicine will monitor my work per the outcome of the investigation.
And that is the right thing to do.
But I will always be grateful for the opportunity to serve and support each of you — to have worked with you to keep our operations strong in the darkest days of the pandemic, to bring our research enterprise over the $1 billion mark, to help advance so many talented and promising scientific teams through our Creativity Hubs program, and to have been a part of developing Carolina’s capacity to do transformative, convergent and translational research that improves lives in North Carolina and around the world.