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.