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by Joan P. Schwartz, Ph.D. , NINDS


Joan P. Schwartz
[ J. Schwartz ](photo, Lorna Heartley)
What do you do when you believe that your lab chief should just be thanked in the acknowledgments of your paper, but he or she insists on inclusion as a co-author? Or what do you do if a former postdoctoral fellow leaves the laboratory and takes reagents needed to advance a project, refusing to share them with incoming fellows? Or suppose you believe that a review committee being constituted to give advice on your potential tenure does not have the expertise needed to evaluate your science? Until now, such problems - which fall into categories such as mentorship, authorship, reagent sharing, data management, and career advancement - have fermented at the local level, often with no resolution or a delayed resolution that aggravates the problem.

Several offices at NIH are about to launch a pilot project that we hope will help people deal with these issues and disputes. Working together, members of the Office of Equal Opportunity, the Office of Human Resources Management, the Office of Intramural Research,











and the NIH Committee on Scientific Conduct and Ethics are now establishing a Cooperative Resolution Center, to be headed by an NIH ombudsman. The center will serve as a neutral site for resolving work-related conflicts.

We see three advantages deriving from the center. First, it will provide a confidential setting for conflict resolution, independent of the institute structure. Anyone may use the office. Second, the process should be fast because specific time limits will be set for resolution of problems. Third, and most importantly, having the center should allow resolution of disputes at an early stage, before they have become intractable. At the same time, participants in this process do not give up their rights to file a grievance or an EEO complaint, should these become necessary.

David Lee Robinson, chief of the Section on Visual Behavior, National Eye Institute, and a 25-year veteran of NIH, has agreed to pilot the role of ombudsman and get the Cooperative Resolution Center started. An advisory committee, consisting of scientists on the NIH Committee on Scientific Conduct and Ethics, will assist Robinson in determining how best to run the center and to evaluate its success during the pilot period. We see this as an experiment in the best sense of the word - finding out what procedures work best in resolving NIH's unique workplace conflicts.

NIH's first ombudsman:
David Lee Robinson
[ D. Robinson ](photo, Fran Pollner)
An ombudsman is by definition someone who maintains absolute confidentiality regarding any case, is independent of both management and personnel, serves as an informal information resource, handles complaints, and assists in resolving disputes. The ombudsman is a facilitator, not a decision maker. When a person who thinks he or she might want the ombudsman's help first visits his office, the ombudsman will listen, discuss different options, and make informal suggestions for resolution of the problem. Ultimately, once the issues have been clarified and all parties to the dispute are willing to try the alternative dispute-resolution process, the ombudsman will recommend one of the various forms of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) available, depending on the facts of the case.

The Cooperative Resolution Center will initially offer mediation, early neutral evaluation, and peer panel evaluation. Mediation involves the use of an impartial third party who serves as a catalyst to help the parties improve communication and thereby reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Mediators are trained in negotiating, building trust and consensus, and interest-based problem solving. If both sides reach an agreement, that agreement is usually written down. If no agreement is reached, the parties may elect to pursue another ADR process or exercise their rights in another arena.

Early neutral evalulation uses a neutral third party to provide an objective evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of each party's position. This could be useful when there is a scientific basis to the dispute. The "early neutral evaluator" would be a subject-matter expert who would produce a written report and a set of recommendations, based on the presentations by all parties.

A peer panel evaluation uses a group (generally three) of early neutral evaluators, or scientific experts. Each party to the dispute would choose one expert, and the ombudsman would appoint the third. The panel would produce a written report based on presentations by each party. Such a mechanism might be particularly appropriate when the dispute involves a "community standard" - for example, determining what contributions in a given work merit authorship in that discipline.

We believe that the availability of the ombudsman, the Cooperative Resolution Center, and a successful ADR program will benefit NIH. The process will be easily accessible and will provide a diversity of options for resolving conflicts through cooperation and problem solving, as an alternative to litigation or administrative proceedings. We're launching the ombudsman with a five-ICD pilot project, including NIDA, NIAID, NIEHS, NHLBI, and OD. For the rest of you: stay tuned! Final details concerning space, communications, and finances are being considered and will be reported in the next issue of The NIH Catalyst.

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