University came to the rescue of accused researcher

Sapienza University of Rome, Italy.

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A university’s leaders might disown researchers in the face of allegations of unethical practice out of fear for the establishment’s reputation (see, for example, Nature 558, 13–14; 2018). Three years ago, I had the opposite experience.

I was accused of animal maltreatment on an Italian national television programme, on the basis of images that had been taken illegally by an undercover activist. An animal-welfare organization brought charges against me to a tribunal in Rome, claiming that I had violated Italy’s animal-protection law.

My university press office meticulously investigated all of my lab’s papers and protocols with the university’s official veterinary surgeon and wrote to the director of the TV programme, emphasizing that all procedures in the lab had conformed with the law. The press office also relayed a letter from me to all senior academic staff that set out my version of events.

Thanks to this support, I received an unexpectedly positive international response. The university formally conducted my legal defence at the tribunal. I have since received authorization from the Italian Ministry of Health to continue with my neuroscience research on non-human primates.

Reciprocal communication between researchers and their institutional leaders is crucial for resolving such disputes. My case illustrates how fair decisions can be reached by institutions in critical situations after careful assessment of the facts, unprejudiced by their potential impact on an institution’s standing.

Nature 559, 32 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05611-1
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