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Home No. 71: Another PI’s acting suspiciously with lab equipment and materials — What do I do?

Apr 11

No. 71: Another PI’s acting suspiciously with lab equipment and materials — What do I do?

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Another PI’s acting suspiciously with lab equipment and materials — What do I do?

Reader question: While working in my lab several evenings, I noticed another PI loading lab glassware and jars of reagents into his car and driving off. Maybe he’s continuing his experiments in a home lab, or he could be running another small company “on the side.” Should I just “shut up,” or should I ask somebody to look into this. I certainly don’t want to get an innocent person in trouble, nor do I wish to lay myself open to charges of slander, but I also have loyalty obligations to my institution. What should I do?

Expert Comments: Many people would prefer to remain silent and not get involved. In fact, surveys show that many employees will actually choose to “shut up” rather than face the possible consequences of getting someone in trouble or being called a “rat.” Employees often hope that there’s a reasonable explanation and walk away from the incident. Indeed, people will just brush it off, thinking, “everyone does it; it’s no big deal.”

Getting involved can be scary and fraught with conflict. You indicated you felt the behavior was “suspicious” as well as it was happening “at night” and for “several nights.” This is a “red flag” warning that you should never ignore.

In this case, you should first be sure that you are aware of the organization’s policy about reporting “suspicious incidents.” Most organizations, especially large universities and colleges, will have very clear procedures regarding how to report it. The usual procedure is to tell your supervisor. So find that policy, and read it carefully.

Second, follow that policy. For example, if it says to report the incident to your supervisor or department head, ask to meet with the correct person and confidentially tell him as matter-of-factly as possible what you observed.

Third, ask that the discussion be confidential. Also add that your intention is not to get an innocent person in trouble because there might be a reasonable explanation. After the discussion, follow up with an e-mail and say something like: “I am following up on our confidential discussion from yesterday (date). Thanks for meeting with me.”

The e-mail will serve to document that you followed policy and that you requested confidentiality. You have done what an organization requires you to do, and you have also acknowledged your personal commitment to your institution.

Expert comments by Amy Block Joy, PhD, College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Davis, is the author of Whistleblower (http://www.amyblockjoy.com), a memoir in which she recounts blowing the whistle on another employee’s misuse of federal grant funds.

Comments (7)
Principal, Thomas R. Blackburn Grants Consultancy
written by Thomas Blackburn, April 04, 2011
Oh, absolutely, you should say something. If this is an innocent, sanctioned activity - for example, doing a "Mr Science" show at the local grade school - your supervisor, or your colleague's supervisor, will/should know of it. If your colleague is running a meth lab or weaponizing anthrax spores in his garage, don't you want someone in authority to know about that? Even if the colleague is only pursuing pure research off-site, it is almost certainly a violation of his/her employment to use equipment and supplies from your lab that was purchased for a different purpose. It is very tempting to 'borrow' cool scientific gear for home purposes, like storing salad dressing, but what you describe sounds like a lot more than that.
written by Campus Cop, April 05, 2011
Look,if you know the guy at all, pull your car up in the lot to block his. Keep your headlights on. Proceed as follows" "Oh, I'm relieved to see you are a faculty member. I thought you might be somebody from town invading to heist lab supplies after hours. Whew! I almost called the cops. Probably there's an innocent explanation; I hope so. Well, I won't take this any further, I'll just send a routine email to Security that it wasn't some invader from town". Then get in your car and GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE before his mood can change. But I guarantee you he will get the message, and probably cease and desist forever.
written by Prof "Snakebitten", April 12, 2011
We had a colleague who brought in an empty Thermos bottle from home, and surreptitiously (he thought) filled it with liquid nitrogen from our large insulated tank of the stuff. Why? Turns out he's afraid to approach snakes in his garden, so he sneaks up and douses them with a stream of the icey cold stuff. This instantly freezes the reptile into a sort of "glass". which he then smashes with a hammer. But was this sort of minor diversion of lab supplies worth reporting to les gendarmes? I thought not. It was cheaper than paying employee health to treat his fear of snakes.
Certified Fraud Examiners Viewpoint
written by M782427, April 12, 2011
Dear Researchers:

(1) Go directly to the 'compliance officer' and or legal counsel and report said act to a Fraud / Complaint Hot Line and have a document prepared that states the 'observational facts', not assumptions, pursuant to gov. or corp. policy #. A second witness that also has or is viewing the alleged violations lends credibility. Why? You become a 'fact witness'; and you are generally protected from a lawsuit and retaliation. (2) Do not become involved in stopping the 'actor' or be part of the action; do NOT play cop. Why? This individual may already be under surveillance / suspicion and if you take part in his/her act, other than following proper procedures and policy, said 'act' may put YOU into the surveillance / suspicion column.(3)Unlike the author has suggested to go to your immediate supervisor, ALL colleges, universities, gov. entities, will follow a policy that such behavior is reported DIRECTLY to the compliance officer or legal counsel or report such an incident to a Fraud/Complaint Hot Line. Why? Your supervisor may be a 'compliant associate' of said actor and will 'tip-off' his/her associate. It is not YOUR legal or ethical responsibility to assume guilt or innocence; it is your responsibility to report the facts - You are a fact witness.
written by David E. Harrison, April 12, 2011
The official advice sounds good so far as covering your butt. And that is becoming more and more important, even at basic research institutions. However if your colleague is a personal friend and is known to be an honest scientist, who never cheats on data or takes ideas without giving credit, it is hard to believe that such a person is doing anything dishonest. Perhaps the materials are obsolete and are being loaned or given to a competent person in a school in a poor district that needs such science equipment - and perhaps such honorable pursuits are forbidden in your institution.

I would discuss this with my colleague, covering my butt by making sure we talked privately off campus, and then judge whether it is worth reporting. If you are an ethical thoughtful adult, you are more likely to be honest and honorable and do the right thing than most corporate entities.

On the other hand, if the colleague is a known cheat, bring the behavior to the attention of your supervisor.

I would not bypass your supervisor for the compliance officer, as suggested by Fraud Examiner, unless you have reason to suspect that your supervisor is dishonest. In this case, you have bigger problems than your colleague's behavior, and should already be looking for another job!
written by Victor, April 13, 2011
This time I side with David Harrison. To be sure, pilfering is a sin and a crime. I am appalled, however, reading the official comment and the "Examiners Viewpoint". Both comments are a perfect "Legalese"; they graphically show how this country goes astray. This is not to say they are wrong; unfortunately, they are correct, and this makes it even more depressing, to reflect on what kind of society did we arrive at.
Certified Fraud Examiners Viewpoint
written by M782427, April 18, 2011
Dear Researchers:

(tongue & cheek)

Four issues:
(1) Colleague is a known cheat: Thats funny! If he is a 'known cheat', then why is the colleague still working in the organization?
(2) Don't by pass your supervisor: Thats also funny! Going directly to the compliance officer as required in many, many government and private funded foundations, pursuant to A-133 Audits by the GAO, the organization is 'required' to instruct the employees, regardless of their position to report to the compliance officer. Example: What happens when the CMO believes that the CFO is committing a financial violation? Who does the CMO go to? This avoids the indirect rumor mill. Why? Answer: Because you may be dead wrong! Again, this is why the feds have these rules and are repeated throughout research investigations. Unless of course you really, really like having a libel suit placed against you, since you did not follow the organizations instructional guidelines.

(3) Reflective of our society: Thats funny again! In the USA most of our issues are resolved in a courtroom where you are innocent until proven guilty.

(4)How to get arrested and perhaps charged: Talk to your colleague off campus, while he/she is under federal surveillance. Then when that midnight knock at the door comes, you discover that your so called colleague has implicated you as a co-conspirator and has set you up as the person behind the fraud over a period of a year or so and your colleague has a bundle of documents as evidence against you. The next day your significant other see your name and face on page 1 of the New York Times and being splashed all over the Internet. Good Advice!! Hey, does anyone know how to say $1,000,000 Bond?

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