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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Smithsonian mammalogist Kris Helgen, falsely accused but now exonerated of research misconduct, leaves for Australia

Helgen leading his expedition on Mt. Kenya
Note: This post will be continually edited as new information and comment become available. Latest development is a story in the Washington Post about the resolution of the case, which kindly credits my original reporting in The Verge.

Kris Helgen, whose long battle to clear his name of accusations made by his superiors at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History has finally succeeded, is leaving the museum for a new position at the University of Adelaide. Although he managed to hold onto his job after an investigation I conducted for The Verge showed that the charges and their investigation were deeply flawed, sources at the museum indicate that NMNH officials continued to make his life miserable over the past months. They stripped him of his curatorial responsibilities, isolated him from colleagues, and left him with little hope of regaining the prestige and respect he had previously enjoyed.

In an email yesterday to museum staff (see below), Helgen stated that he would start at Adelaide in March, with the rank of professor of biological sciences, a clear promotion from his current position. Helgen also stated that his "record had been cleared and efforts to fire or suspend me have been rescinded." This includes the two week suspension that NMNH director Kirk Johnson had slapped on him last fall--a serious blemish on the record of a federal employee, had it been allowed to stand.

Museum officials declined to comment on the circumstances of Helgen's departure, simply stating that the NMNH does not comment on personnel matters. However, one museum scientist familiar with the situation told me that it was the result of a settlement between museum officials and Helgen negotiated over the past period of time: "It's infuriating to me that institutional leaders would let [Johnson] unilaterally destroy [Helgen's] professional reputation and create a hostile workplace."

Don Wilson, an emeritus mammalogist at the museum and Helgen's predecessor as curator of mammals, told me that "The Smithsonian has lost one of its best and brightest. Kris will be making major contributions to science for decades to come." One of those contributions comes this week, as Helgen joins an international team to announce a new species of gibbon in the American Journal of Primatology.

Helgen will move to Adelaide with his wife, who is Australian, and their young son. Below is his message to his colleagues at the museum; I will update this report as more details come in.

From: Helgen, Kristofer M.
Sent: Monday, January 09, 2017 4:03 PM
To: NMNH-All-Users
Cc: ....
Subject: farewell
Friends
It is with excitement and sadness that I announce that I am leaving NMNH for a position in Australia. I will be taking on the role of Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide, starting in March. My last day will be January 19. The University of Adelaide is my alma mater and my work in zoology will continue there, apace. Lauren (my wife), who has worked in Entomology and Vertebrate Zoology here at NMNH, also bids you farewell. Lauren is from Adelaide, and we will return to be with family there. We will be going home.
2016 has been challenging. Many of you learned in the press that NMNH tried to fire me over complaints related to permissions for our 2015 Roosevelt Expedition to Kenya. I am very relieved to say that my record has been cleared and efforts to fire or to suspend me have been rescinded. Thank you to so many of you for standing by me during a very hard 15 months.
I believe that the Smithsonian, especially the NMNH, is one of our greatest national assets, and I know that you all serve this institution with pride. I have been humbled to hold a Smithsonian badge for 17 years, starting as an undergraduate intern, progressing to graduate, pre-doctoral, and postdoctoral fellowships, and finally serving as a curator over the past decade. From our scientific and collections staff and fellows, to our education and exhibits teams, to all the dedicated building and custodial staff who make this museum operate in all the real and practical ways, to the remarkable officers who keep us safe, this place has felt like a family to me as much as a workplace. 
Thank you for allowing me this farewell. I hope to see all of you on regular return visits. And come and see us in Australia—our email addresses are listed above.
With best wishes for 2017 (see attached) and all else that is ahead, yours most truly,
kmh
Kris, Lauren, and Daniel Oldfield Helgen