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Special Report: Can NSF Put the Right Spin on Rotators? Part 2

24 October 2013 1:45 pm
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Anja Strømme during a recent visit to the Sondrestrom incoherent scatter radar facility in Greenland.

Anja Strømme

Frozen out. Anja Strømme during a recent visit to the Sondrestrom incoherent scatter radar facility in Greenland.

Scientists on Loan to NSF Have No Protection if Job Conduct Is Questioned

Anja Strømme still cries when she describes how she abruptly lost her job this spring at the National Science Foundation (NSF). But she’s decided to tell her story, painful as it is, in the hope that other scientists may avoid the wrenching experience she went through.

Trained as an ionospheric physicist, Strømme began working at NSF in March 2012 as a program officer in its geospace section. But she was never a federal employee. Instead, she was a “rotator,” on leave from SRI International, a nonprofit research institute in Menlo Park, California, under a program that NSF uses far more than any other federal research agency (see Part 1, "NSF Urged to Improve Oversight of Program for Scientists on Loan").

Strømme was the principal investigator for an incoherent scatter radar facility in Greenland that SRI operates for NSF when she was invited to come to the agency to clear up a backlog of grant applications in its aeronomy program. Strømme says she was reluctant at first to leave SRI, but that she agreed to take on the challenge as a way of “giving back” to an agency she greatly admired.

Strømme enjoyed working at NSF and was very impressed by the dedication of her colleagues. She also says that she was making good progress in whittling down the backlog. Although her initial appointment was expected to last 12 months, her boss eventually asked her to stay on for another 6 months, a request to which she and SRI readily agreed.

However, a few days before the end of her first year, her life was suddenly turned upside down. The turmoil began the afternoon of 14 March, when Strømme was summoned to a meeting in the office of the director of NSF’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, Michael Morgan. With him was David Verardo, a section head who also serves as the division’s ethics official. Her supervisor was not present.

What follows is Strømme’s account of the meeting. Both managers declined to comment on the substance of what occurred, although Verardo told ScienceInsider that “the Agency gives each employee, reviewer, and panelist ample advice and opportunity to meet the NSF standards” regarding ethical conduct and that “we followed that process and held to those standards in the case in which you are interested.”

The meeting began with Strømme sitting down and being told, “Do you understand how much trouble you are in?” Stunned, she said she had no idea what they were talking about. “You know what you’ve done,” came the reply, she says. After repeatedly asking for details, she says she was told that she had committed “several federal offenses” and “would be going to jail.”

The harsh words were so unexpected, she says, that she began to wonder if she might have misunderstood what her accusers were saying. “It seemed like a joke. It was hard to take them seriously,” she says.

As the meeting continued, however, she realized that she was being accused of having violated several rules against conflicts of interest in connection with grant applications she had handled. “I was never told exactly what I had done,” she tells ScienceInsider, “but I was given the impression that I had somehow favored SRI in some way.” She was also told not to mention the meeting to anyone, including her supervisor.

After she left the room, however, Strømme spent the next few days trying frantically to learn more about her alleged misbehavior. She never received a list of particulars. She also learned that there was neither a way for rotators to file a grievance, nor even respond directly to the allegations. Within a week, NSF officials informed her that she no longer worked at the foundation.

Senior NSF officials declined repeated requests to discuss whether agency policies were followed in Strømme’s case, and an NSF spokesperson told ScienceInsider that “NSF has answered all it can about the IPA piece you are working on.” However, the agency did provide ScienceInsider with written answers to a list of questions relating to reports from the inspector general about how NSF manages rotators, also known as IPAs, because of the 1970 Intergovernmental Personnel Act that authorizes their use (see Part 1).

Strømme is now back in her old job at SRI, where she says the people have been “extremely supportive.” But she’s struggling to pick up the pieces of what she sees as her broken career. “I have no future,” says Strømme, a Norwegian citizen who received her Ph.D. in 2003 from the University of Tromsø and who is in the midst of applying for permanent residency status in the United States. “Nobody knows what happened. But they know that there was a conflict between me and NSF.”

NSF was within its legal rights to force her departure, Strømme acknowledges. Rotators work under a standard agreement that NSF, their institution, or the individual can terminate at any time. “But that doesn’t make it right,” she says. “The system needs to be changed to protect future [rotators] against something like this.”

Colleagues of Strømme, some of whom still work at NSF and spoke only after being promised anonymity, say they believe the agency grossly overreacted to what was at most a bureaucratic slip-up. Her actions had no negative impact on NSF’s vaunted system of peer review, they say, adding that they were shocked when she was forced to leave the agency. “She feels abused and disgraced, and it should have never happened,” says one scientist.

A former deputy NSF director who is familiar with the case worries that the incident could cause many scientists and engineers thinking of coming to NSF as a rotator to rethink such a move. It could also undermine the agency’s ability to maintain a high-quality workforce, says Kathie Olsen, who worked at NSF for nearly 2 decades and served as deputy NSF director and chief operating officer from 2005 to 2009. “That’s so not NSF,” she says. “That’s just not how NSF operates.”

 Stromme helped run an NSF program that funds radars, such as this one in the Arctic, that probe how charged particles interact with Earth’s ionosphere, producing phenomena such as the Aurora Borealis.

AMISR/SRI International

Ionospheric science. Strømme helped run an NSF program that funds radars, such as this one in the Arctic, that probe how charged particles interact with Earth’s ionosphere, producing phenomena such as the aurora borealis.

Questions about a letter

So what actually happened? Strømme says she was never told what she did wrong. But ScienceInsider has obtained a five-paragraph memo from NSF’s in-house legal team to the geosciences directorate that touches on several important aspects of the case. The 20 March memo was written by Karen Santoro, the agency’s designated ethics official, to Margaret Cavanaugh, acting head of the directorate. It recommends that the agency terminate Strømme’s IPA agreement because of several alleged ethical breaches.

The key accusation in Santoro’s letter involves what it describes as “a letter of support” that Strømme wrote for one NSF grant applicant while at SRI before she came to the agency. It was included in a research proposal that Strømme, as an NSF program officer, eventually approved for funding. “Recommending an award that contains a letter of support signed by the same program officer appears to be a violation of ethical standards,” the memo notes. It continues, “the issue here, quite simply, is whether the program officer had maintained her impartiality in processing” the award.

Strømme insists that her actions did not amount to a conflict of interest. And colleagues back up her account of events. Cavanaugh declined to comment on the memo.

First off, Strømme says, the letter was not in “support” of the grant proposal, but instead a boilerplate statement included in many proposals. NSF pays SRI to operate and maintain a facility in Sondrestrom, Greenland. It’s part of a network of six NSF-funded incoherent scatter radar stations stretching from the Arctic to the Andes that monitor the upper atmosphere and space weather. Any researcher applying for NSF funding to use the Sondrestrom facility is urged to include in their application a letter from SRI verifying that the instrument is capable of running the proposed experiment and promising to provide the researcher with the relevant data.

“I wrote hundreds of such letters,” she says. “They say, in effect: ‘If you get funded, we will run the radar for you.’ ” She says she has no recollection of this particular letter.

Strømme notes that the proposal containing the letter was sent out for review by her predecessor. What’s more, another colleague wrote the letter recommending that the proposal be funded. Only then was it routed to Strømme—even though it shouldn’t have been.

NSF uses an electronic system to flag real or perceived conflicts. Had it spotted Strømme’s letter in the packet, it would have told her that she had a potential conflict on the proposal and routed it to somebody else. But the system broke down, giving Strømme the opportunity to add her signature. “I shouldn’t have been able to sign off on it,” she says. “But in any case, there were no monetary benefits to SRI.”

Strømme also notes that she was accustomed to recusing herself from handling proposals that might pose a conflict. According to e-mails obtained by ScienceInsider, she recused herself from handling at least 10 proposals, which were reassigned to colleagues. “We had been doing this for a year,” she says, “so it was quite a shock to hear at the meeting about all the terrible things I had supposedly done.”

Santoro’s memo stresses the importance of a rule requiring that “employees shall endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or the ethical standards.” It also outlines other examples of alleged misconduct by Strømme that the physicist disputes. One involves “handling several other proposals and awards with letters of support from her home institution.” Strømme says that accusation is simply not true. Another is that Strømme took a required conflicts training course online rather than in person; Strømme says that she was given permission to take the course online. She is also accused of “disregarding the advice of a conflicts official.” Strømme says she never received any advice from an NSF conflicts official and certainly wouldn’t have ignored it if some had been offered.

No recourse

It is unclear who leveled the allegations against Strømme and how NSF investigated them. Santoro’s job within the general counsel’s office includes investigating alleged violations of ethical conduct, including perceived or real conflicts of interest. In Strømme’s case, however, the investigative legwork appears to have been done by someone within the Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, to which the aeronomy program belongs.

Santoro declined several requests from ScienceInsider to discuss how she handled the investigation. But her memo notes that the alleged conflict arising from Strømme’s letter of support “was recently brought to my attention.” In the next paragraph, she adds that “we would have been in a better position to take appropriate steps to resolve any conflicts issue … if an OGC ethics official had been apprised of the proposal at the time the proposal was assigned to [Strømme].”

Charlie Brown held Santoro’s job as NSF’s designated ethics official for 15 years before retiring from NSF in 2007. He says that it is quite unusual for the ethics office, which has the responsibility to carry out all necessary investigations into alleged conflicts of interest, to defer to someone within a research directorate. There are designated conflicts officials within each of NSF’s 30-some divisions, he says, but they are intended to be “conflicts preventers … not investigators or lawyers. Our doors are open, and they are supposed to come to us as soon as they suspect a possible conflict.”

Brown, who is not familiar with Strømme’s case, said he was also surprised that Strømme was not told until shortly before her IPA agreement was terminated that she was the subject of any investigation. He was also troubled by the fact that she never had a chance to review the evidence, much less respond to the allegations.

“When a conflicts officer would come to me,” Brown says, “the first thing I’d ask is, ‘Do they admit it?’ Then I’d make sure that everybody had the chance to tell me what they think had happened. And I certainly wouldn’t write a recommendation to get rid of someone until I had talked to both sides.”

Had Strømme been an NSF employee, she would have been entitled to the rights and protections afforded the permanent government workers sitting in adjoining cubicles. NSF’s employee union might also have stood up for her. As a rotator rather than a civil servant, however, she had nobody watching her back.

Brown, the retired NSF ethics chief, says it is in NSF’s interest to try and resolve any alleged conflicts to the satisfaction of all concerned, even if the case involves a rotator who lacks civil service protections. “NSF needs IPAs,” he says, “and we always wanted the IPA experience to be a good one for them and their institution. The ultimate goal is to make sure that things were handled properly.”

Looking back at what happened to her, Strømme says she never realized how vulnerable she was. “I think the whole idea of having IPAs is brilliant,” she says. “It’s a great way to keep the foundation up to speed. So it’s very important that such a system can exist.”

She says that NSF’s stellar reputation was one reason she was attracted to the idea of becoming a rotator. But she now sees the agency in a less flattering light.

“I’d never seen so many hard-working, committed people until I came to NSF,” she says. “But right now, it’s really too dangerous for scientists. I read the agreement, but I couldn’t see myself getting into a situation [where she would be accused of violating conflict rules] because I don’t break rules. The fact that something like this could happen, and that I would have no way to defend myself or even to get any information, is not how things should work."

Read Part 1, "NSF Urged to Improve Oversight of Program for Scientists on Loan."

Further reading:

About NSF Rotator Positions, from the National Science Foundation.

“The life of an NSF Program Officer,” a three-part series posted on The Spandrel Shop blog by honey bee research Michelle Elekonich of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“Rotating at the National Science Foundation,” by John B. Conway, published in a 2005 edition of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

“ ‘Rotators’ in the National Science Foundation’s Geosciences Directorate,” a report on a survey, in a 2007 edition of Eos.

“Ready for the Bigger Picture? Become a Program Director at NSF!” A 2013 article by Hans Kaper of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

“Rotating scientists recall time at NSF,” an article in the March 2005 edition of Staff Notes, published by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.