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Ear of Experience Keeps the Peace
Robinson Auditions Role of Ombudsman at NIH

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...
John Doe, a postdoc in the NIH Laboratory of Experimental Genius, has troubles. His scientific mentor and lab chief, Dr. Jane Smith, has recently published a well-received paper based on an idea Doe mentioned at the coffee machine a few months ago. The way Doe sees it, the idea was clearly his, but the paper was entirely hers. Doesn't seem right to him that she's taking credit for someone else's concept, but what can he do? Should he approach her about it, initiating a confrontation that would probably strain the mentor-protégé relationship and ultimately threaten his research post? Should he just keep quiet and simmer on the inside? Either way, the deck seems stacked against him, with her holding all the cards -- and his career -- in her hands.

Enter Dr. David Lee Robinson, 25-year veteran scientist at the National Eye Institute and newly appointed NIH ombudsman. Sleeves rolled to the elbows of his open-collar shirt, affable smile splitting his face, Robinson looks relaxed in his second floor Conte Bldg. office with a view of the hilly green land between Bldgs. 49 and 29. He appears utterly comfortable in his tielessness. Open. Affable. Relaxed. Words that could just as easily describe his new job as NIH ombudsman. Tieless works too, even better, perhaps. Probably the most important thing about this ombudsman office -- born at NIH last December as a 12-month experiment in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) -- is the complete freedom that surrounds it. The ombudsman does not belong to any institute, center or division. Neither can the office be described as an advocacy for postdocs, lab techs or campus interest groups. The ombudsman is uniquely untethered, but not disconnected. That's the way it's gotta be, for it to work, says Robinson.

Dr. David Lee Robinson

"I don't represent anybody," he explains. "I'm completely neutral. What I represent is an attempt at a fair, reasonable solution to problems, difficulties."

As Robinson explains, ADR can take any of several forms including facilitation, shuttle diplomacy, mediation, early neutral evaluation or peer panels. "All of these are designed to help the parties arrive at their own resolution rather than resorting to formal processes," he observes. "The latter result is an external decision which can often leave one party very unhappy."

As the opening hypothetical scenario illustrates, troubles can crop up in the lab as well as any other work place on campus. Some troubles have obvious avenues of recourse. Problems with harassment, for instance, need to be taken to the Equal Employment Opportunity Office. Similarly, suspicions of research fraud should be addressed to individual scientific directors or to NIH's research integrity officer, Dr. Philip Chen. But whither situations -- like authorship -- where there is no formal mechanism for resolution?

According to Robinson, many such issues were ending up at the door of Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research and reluctant campus science-issue Solomon. The fair amount of time he was having to devote to handling these cases in part led to creation of the NIH ombudsman. And Robinson reports that he himself has been far from idle in the months since he opened for business.

The largest impetus for establishing the new office came from an unexpected source, he relates. During a gathering of the NIH committee on scientific conduct and ethics, chaired by Dr. Joan Schwartz, a presentation was given by the Office of Equal Opportunity and the Office of Human Resource Management on the role of ADR and an ombudsman. The practice can be traced back more than 30 years in the United States, Robinson says. MIT and Caltech both have ombudsman offices. About a dozen or so federal science agencies have them as well. MIT's Dr. Mary Rowe, who cofounded the Corporate Ombudsman Association and conducts a course titled, "Everything You Need to Know About Negotiating Anything with Anyone," is a well-known pioneer ombudsman; Robinson says, "I guess she can be called the elder stateswoman of the field."

Instead of resistance as some expected, the prospects of ADR and a campus ombudsman were enthusiastically welcomed. Later a group of attendees broached the idea of Robinson breaking ground for the new post and setting up the peacekeeping shop for a year. Interestingly, the opportunity to branch out from the research bench and move in a new direction was just what he was actively seeking at the time.

"Rather than being a pain in the neck -- as I halfway thought it might be," Robinson confides, grinning, "it's been really fascinating so far. What is amazing to me is how differently the same story can be seen by opposing parties. In a sense, too, it's almost like science. You come up with an idea, you try some things, they may or may not work out. It's a challenge. And one thing that is different than doing research is that the sense of satisfaction comes quicker. You can spend years following an idea in research. With this, the issue can get resolved much faster."

The dictionary defines an ombudsman as "a government official, especially in Scandinavian countries, who investigates citizens' complaints against the government." While he does attempt to look into both sides of conflicts, what Robinson offers -- chiefly to the five ICDs that offered financial support to establish the office for this trial period -- is a lot more informal and intangible. Mainly, he provides two invaluable commodities -- an ear of experience and complete confidentiality.

"I want it to be clear that I have absolutely no power or authority over these problems," he is quick to point out. "In no way does this replace any of the formal complaint processes, but sometimes all people need is someone to listen to them, let them talk something out. If we can get to a point where we can get a compromise -- early on in the problem -- then we can stop it from escalating into some kind of litigation or legal issue. The goal is to reach people before they get really infuriated with each other."

To prepare for his new post, Robinson finished a course on ombudsmanship in February and most recently, an Introduction to Mediation class. In addition to knowing and experiencing the inner workings of federal scientific research in general, and NIH in particular, and running his own lab for more than two decades, he also can provide wisdom gained from a personal perspective.

"Being a father has definitely helped me in this," he confides easily. "Since my kids have grown up and gone out on their own, I've seen how much simpler it is to offer them advice. Distance from a problem makes it a lot easier to handle. I found that they accept suggestions better too, knowing that rather than interfering, I'm trying to help. The hope is that people will realize that I'm here. I'm not connected to anybody else or any other group. It's comfortable. It's confidential. We fix it and move on. We don't have to spend 6 months to a year on these issues."

The ombudsman can be reached at 4-7231.

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