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USF restructures administration of research work

Prompted by an audit that raised questions about potential conflicts of interest, University of South Florida officials are making significant changes in the way the university's growing research program is administered.

This is the second time in the last year that USF has restructured its research operations in response to a critical report.

A warning by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that USF was not adequately protecting human research subjects spurred the first round of changes, which is revamping how the university authorizes and monitors each of its more than 1,000 active research projects.

The latest report to surface was written last September by the university's Inspector General's Office. It looked into allegations that George Newkome, USF's vice president for research, had improperly used the office's staff, equipment and money to further his own research projects.

Although university leaders concluded that Newkome did not violate any policies, they agreed with auditors that the department's administrative structure needed to be changed to eliminate "possible violations of policy, including the appearance of conflict of interest."

That meant stripping Newkome of some responsibilities and creating a committee to oversee other areas.

Most of the concerns were focused on Newkome's multiple roles within the administrative hierarchy.

Since 1986, when he was recruited to USF from Louisiana State University, Newkome has been vice president for research, the office's chief administrative officer. In 1989, he also became president of the Research Foundation, which facilitates the commercialization of innovations made by USF scientists.

But Newkome also is a world-class scientist and director of USF's Center for Molecular Design and Recognition, which occupies four laboratories and employees a team of researchers.

During the last nine years, he has helped produce 14 inventions that have resulted in 10 patents. The university has entered into five commercial contracts related to those inventions.

The auditors said investing such overlapping responsibilities in one person couldn't help but raise questions about conflicts of interest. If the administrative structure was to be retained, they said, someone independent of Newkome would have to become involved in key decisions.

USF provost Thomas Tighe told Newkome he had to step down as president of the Research Foundation, which he did early this year. The foundation is now being run by an interim replacement while USF conducts a nationwide search for a director.

Tighe also created a faculty advisory panel to advise the university on which inventions warrant patents or further commercialization.

"We want to avoid even the appearance of a conflict," said Tighe, USF's chief academic officer.

Tighe said the restructuring is a product of USF's rapid growth in research funding, which is the same explanation university leaders used to explain the problems identified in the FDA warning.

He said USF has been reviewing its research operation for several years, and began making changes long before the auditors or the federal government began making recommendations.

"This university is maturing very quickly," Tighe said. "A structure that worked when we were much smaller is more problematic today."

Newkome, who called the university audit "wrong and frankly libelous," has not resisted the changes. But he said Wednesday he still considers them unnecessary.

A survey of 47 comparably sized universities, he said, show that more than 80 percent have an administrative structure similar to the one USF has decided to change. He also isn't buying the concerns about perceived conflicts of interest.

"When you have a conflict you manage it, which is what the federal government tells you to do," Newkome said. "You find your boss and ask them if it's acceptable. If they say yes, then it's acceptable."

Newkome said the audit stemmed from allegations made by unhappy former employees. Public records released Wednesday show that at least some of the complainants, who requested anonymity, felt they were unfairly treated in his office.

In an unusual move, Newkome hired prominent attorney William Reece Smith Jr. to answer questions raised by the auditors.

In his written response, Smith said the auditor's report is "pervaded by hindsight and second-guessing of the very administrative structure under which the university recruited Dr. Newkome to perform."

Complaints about Newkome improperly using central staff to support his personal research, Smith said, border on the absurd. At most, he said, office staff spent one-half of 1 percent of their time in such activities _ "a trivial amount of time by any standard."

Tighe, however, ordered Newkome to stop providing "special services or support" to either his lab or one run by his wife, who also is a prominent USF researcher.

He also told Newkome to start paying two members of his research team from grant money rather than state funds. Newkome has produced documents showing he had explicit approval from prior administrations allowing that payment arrangement, which has been in place for several years.

"That arrangement was supposed to be for a limited period of time," Tighe said. "We don't do it with other researchers, and he has said he will comply."