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Monitoring USF research

The University of South Florida has moved quickly to begin repairing a laxity in oversight of its fast-growing research programs. School administrators need to make certain that the stakes involved in competing for outside dollars do not compromise the care or rights of patients involved in research or create a culture of favoritism among the faculty. President Betty Castor has a solid record of enforcing responsible practices by her staff. Keeping those standards high will require a new commitment as USF becomes a leading research university and as Castor prepares to leave her post.

Several cases chronicled recently raise concern that some researchers operated without proper oversight from the university. Many of the incidents appear to be growing pains, caused by school research auditors who fell behind as USF experienced a period of phenomenal growth in sponsored research. In a separate case, the university's own auditors raised questions about whether George Newkome, USF's vice president for research, had a conflict with managing his own research and overseeing other research campus-wide.

Even if the problems are isolated, the university has a responsibility to manage the research load it seeks. Invariably, conflicts will arise between public regulatory boards and experts who are paid to advance the knowledge of their profession, especially in the field of medicine. That's why strong oversight of campus research is especially important. Castor's history as a public advocate will shape USF's research efforts in a positive way but only if her values are put into practice by subordinates down the line.

The university accepted the resignation of its compliance director, which should send a positive message to the government and prompt a campus debate over ways to change the oversight of sponsored research. The vice president for research, whose job is to generate outside grants, should not be the gatekeeper on compliance issues. That job should fall to someone with expertise in research and grants management who reports through a different chain of command. In the Newkome case, USF cleared Newkome but nonetheless removed some of his responsibilities, hoping to avoid even the appearance of conflict.

The university also has expanded to three the number of review boards overseeing faculty research; campus officials said a fourth is being created. So far, USF has responded well to the criticism. It should ensure its internal procedures for managing research are strong and independent enough to weather Castor's departure and not create new problems for her successor.