A controversial leader is creating a culture of fear and is stifling cutting-edge research at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, according to a newly released Army report.

The Army’s investigating officer urged that the leader, science director Sina Bavari, be removed from USAMRIID and re-assigned to a job without supervisory duties.

Bavari continues in the position, however, and there is no evidence the institute has acted on these recommendations.

At USAMRIID, Bavari oversees the majority of the Fort Detrick institute’s research departments, including staff members who work in immunology, genomics, bacteriology and virology.

The Army found in a 2015 investigation that since Bavari took that position in 2014, he has created an “environment of fear” at the prestigious lab.

“Workers are genuinely afraid for their jobs and scientific careers,” the investigating officer stated in the report. In June, The Frederick News-Post obtained a copy of the Army report through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The News-Post spoke to multiple sources, including current and former institute researchers, about the Army report. Those who declined to be named feared Bavari would fire them, damage their reputations as researchers, or both.

The Army’s investigation of Bavari did not find any illegal activity.

Bavari declined an interview with The News-Post, but issued a statement through a USAMRIID spokeswoman.

In the statement, he said he is honored to serve as science director and looks forward to “enabling USAMRIID’s expanded capabilities and increased collaborations.”

‘Hot potato’

Statements from multiple current and former USAMRIID employees in the Army report showed that Bavari “fostered a negative or toxic leadership climate,” the investigating officer stated.

“There is a duality in Dr. Bavari’s tactics,” a former USAMRIID employee wrote in an email to The News-Post. “Those who are loyal and follow him unquestioningly are richly rewarded, while anyone who questions him or whom he otherwise perceives as a threat does not have a long future at USAMRIID, and will usually be made to suffer in the time that they are still there.”

The science director tarnished reputations, falsely accused employees of scientific misconduct and threatened them with termination, according to sworn statements in the Army investigation.

Many researchers at the institute work closely with toxins and biological agents such as anthrax and the Ebola virus in maximum-containment laboratories where protective, full-body suits are mandatory.

Henry Heine, who worked at USAMRIID from 1998 until 2010, said in an interview that Bavari was already working at the institute when Heine started there.

According to Caree Vander Linden, a spokeswoman for the institute, Bavari started at USAMRIID as a post-doctoral fellow in 1991.

Heine described Bavari as a “hot potato” who caused problems and was passed from one department to another before he became science director.

In a sworn statement provided for the Army investigation, a colonel said Bavari preferred to hire contractors, so he could terminate them for any reason.

Heine said Bavari took advantage of his ability to terminate contractors.

“When somebody would get into something that crossed him, or crossed something he was trying to do, they would disappear,” Heine said.

Heine is currently program director at the University of Florida’s Institute for Therapeutic Innovation. He did not work directly with Bavari while at USAMRIID, but felt familiar with the director’s modus operandi.

He said Bavari used other employees to further his own goals.

“He’s a consummate user,” Heine said.

Transformational leader

Current and former USAMRIID employees have described Bavari as condescending, manipulative and disrespectful.

Some also described him as an ambitious, resourceful leader who has attracted diligent, loyal workers to his research team.

Travis Warren, a principal investigator at USAMRIID, noted that the Army investigator did not ask some of Bavari’s closest colleagues to provide statements for the Army investigation.

Warren said he has been one of Bavari’s right-hand workers since 2007.

“I regard him as the single most influential mentor in my career development,” he wrote in an email to The News-Post.

Bavari has high expectations and little tolerance for maintaining the status quo, Warren wrote.

“While he often voices strong opinions, I have never felt these viewpoints were presented in an antagonistic or authoritarian manner and have found him to be highly receptive and encouraging of countering viewpoints,” he wrote in an email.

Gustavo Palacios, director of the institute’s Center for Genome Sciences, also works closely with the science director.

The center houses cutting-edge equipment for genome sequencing, which help researchers gain insight into the genes of bacteria, viruses and potential biowarfare agents. According to Warren, Bavari led efforts to get the Center for Genome Sciences off the ground.

Bavari has a sense of purpose that is “inspirational,” Palacios said, and he challenges his staff to think outside the box.

Bavari said in a statement to the investigator that taking care of employees “is of paramount importance to me and is at the centerpiece of my management style.”

Palacios described Bavari as a “transformational” leader whose goal is to ensure that USAMRIID is constantly growing and operating as a first-class lab.

“That’s a very tall task, given the restrictions in funding and the continuous appearances of new natural challenges like Ebola and Zika, or the potential risks associated with bioterrorism acts,” Palacios wrote in an email to The News-Post.

Bavari received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Nebraska this year for leading the institute’s efforts to fight the Ebola outbreak.

“Honorary degrees are awarded by the University of Nebraska to recognize those who have attained achievements of extraordinary and lasting distinction,” according to a press release from the school.

Palacios said institutions such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also praised USAMRIID for its efforts during the Ebola outbreak.

“It means that the institute is moving in the right direction,” he wrote in an email to The News-Post. “Obviously that is not the sole result of Dr. Bavari’s work, but he has taken a leadership role at a crucial time.”

A culture without checks

The Army started an investigation into Bavari last year, after a group of anonymous USAMRIID scientists submitted a letter to Army officials who oversee the institute.

Bavari, “while directing his own highly productive research program, is a detriment to the current and future state of medical research at USAMRIID and should be removed from this position,” the letter stated. “He is a person lacking in honesty, integrity and character, who in his short time as director has created a climate of distrust, intimidation, and fear of retribution.”

The letter writers called Bavari a “catastrophic threat” to the future of USAMRIID.

Some USAMRIID researchers commented to The News-Post that the frequent changes in command, in addition to the fact that their recently assigned commanders aren’t familiar with infectious disease research, have created a culture without checks or balances.

Fort Detrick installation commander Maj. Gen. Brian Lein and Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, who received the letter from the anonymous USAMRIID scientists, have since left their positions.

Army spokespeople who took media inquiries for Lein were unable to reach him for comment the week before he ended his two-year assignment at Fort Detrick. Lein’s last day as commander of the installation was July 28.

The Department of the Army generally assigns the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, or USAMRMC, and Fort Detrick a new commander every two or three years.

Fort Detrick’s installation commander traditionally has a dual role as commander of USAMRMC, which manages USAMRIID.

USAMRIID has its own commander, Col. Thomas Bundt, who is also serving a two- to three-year assignment.

Bundt’s spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment about the Army investigation.

Conflict of interest

In the investigation, current and former USAMRIID researchers told the Army’s investigating officer that Bavari maintains a large research program that seems to be funded “at the expense of other projects,” according to the report.

Warren said Bavari has had a positive effect on USAMRIID’s research portfolio.

“I have personally observed multiple research programs move from an early discovery phase program to advanced development status due in large part to Dr. Bavari’s dedication to USAMRIID’s mission,” Warren wrote in an email.

But the fact that Bavari has a research program at all creates a conflict of interest, the anonymous USAMRIID researchers wrote in their letter.

“It is impossible for the Science Director to have [his or her] own research program and maintain independent judgment in an ethically responsible way,” the researchers wrote.

Hood College biology professor Ann Boyd teaches ethics and sits on the Institutional Review Board for the USAMRMC. The board reviews study proposals from USAMRIID and USAMRMC researchers to ensure that human subjects are treated ethically in experiments.

Directors who conduct research are not necessarily wrong to do so, Boyd said, but those who act in their own self-interest may display a lack of leadership.

“The problem with [a conflict of interest] in research is that it erodes trust,” she said.

Connie Dudley, director of graduate programs in science at Mount St. Mary’s University, said Bavari’s position as director and researcher leaves an “open door” for conflicts.

“It would certainly be a reasonable conclusion that a conflict of interest exists, if indeed this person had the ability to make programmatic changes that would benefit them,” she said.

Bavari told the investigating officer that he does not believe having his own research program creates a conflict of interest.

“In order to be an effective Science Director and to have the respect of other scientists, I feel the need to maintain a good scientific reputation in the field,” he said.

As a researcher, he said he can better relate to the challenges his staff faces.

Heine said that as a director, it can be difficult to be engaged with scientists if you don’t have some of your own research to refer to, but that is a difficult line to walk.

“In an environment where you have a very limited and restricted amount of funding, the temptation is to take care of yourself first, and that’s exactly what I think happened,” he said.

But, Warren said Bavari has intentionally reduced his role in programs to allow colleagues to step up.

“He intentionally empowers individuals like myself to assume greater responsibilities, while remaining available to advise or assist with challenges that may arise,” he wrote in an email.

Questions of support

The Army investigator determined that Bavari uses his power and authority to limit researchers from submitting grant proposals and getting funding from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a Department of Defense agency that is a major USAMRIID funder.

The agency declined to comment.

“It would be inappropriate for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to comment on an USAMRIID matter or employee,” agency spokesman Ron Lovas wrote in an email.

Bavari opted to submit a limited number of proposals to the agency, which were subject to his approval, instead of allowing researchers to submit their own proposals.

That may have kept researchers from securing funding to support their own staff and goals, according to the Army report.

In Bavari’s response to the Army investigation, he argued that his approach eliminated a process that created internal competition and replaced it with team collaboration.

“To ensure that the collective wisdom of USAMRIID’s outstanding scientists are fully applied to solutions for the Warfighter, I am slowly changing the way in which we work with [the Defense Threat Reduction Agency],” he said.

Some USAMRIID employees who provided sworn statements for the Army investigation also were concerned about Bavari’s relationship with the nonprofit Geneva Foundation.

The foundation supports innovative medical research and works with military researchers as they create proposals for federal or other funding.

A dozen principal investigators at USAMRIID are supported by the Geneva Foundation. The foundation also employs 30 research team members at the institute.

The Army investigator asserted that the science director used his relationship with the Geneva Foundation to “bank” funding from pharmaceutical companies to achieve his own research goals without letting USAMRIID know about the funds.

That’s not how the Geneva Foundation works, President Elise Huszar said.

The foundation does not award funding; it works with researchers during the proposal stage and after funding has been awarded from another source, such as the federal government.

“We’re not a grant-making body; we don’t have a cache of money that we make discriminately to different people,” Huszar said.

Huszar said the foundation typically works closely with USAMRIID’s business office to make sure financial awards are reported according to Geneva’s requirements.

“There shouldn’t be any awards that USAMRIID doesn’t know about,” she said.

Huszar found multiple problems with the Army’s report.

“Geneva’s experience with Dr. Bavari did not equate with the report that was provided,” she said.

The Army’s findings will not affect Bavari’s relationship with the Geneva Foundation, Huszar said, unless USAMRIID decides to restrict his proposals.

Recommendations

The Army investigator recommended removing Bavari from USAMRIID and re-assigning him to a job without supervisory duties.

The investigator also recommended the following:

Changing the science director position to minimize the possibility of a conflict of interest between that person and the institute’s research

Auditing funding from nongovernmental sources

Requiring detailed reporting of that funding

Extending commanders’ assignments from two to three years to reduce the impact of turnover

Requiring commanders to have subject matter expertise in the research their organizations conduct.

Vander Linden confirmed that Bavari continues to hold the position of science director at the institute, but could not comment whether the institute had acted on the investigator’s recommendations.

Current employees who spoke to The News-Post said they have not seen any indications that the institute has done so.

Officially, the institute itself was unable to comment on the report.

“Laws such as the Privacy Act severely restrict what can be discussed related to these matters,” Vander Linden wrote in an email. “Therefore, we are unable to comment further.”

Follow Sylvia Carignan on Twitter: @SylviaCarignan.

(17) comments

wocomoco

[rolleyes]
I worked at USAMRIID and know the situation from the past. It is true that many careers were stifled for not conforming to his views. It is true that grant application was blocked because he did not want to have a competition in his lab. It is true he maintained a culture of fear and did not tolerate dissent.
What did he achieve? Creating a shell which was based on connections? Ebola crisis showed that the working solutions came from somewhere else (vaccine from Merck-designed by Wyeth for Tom Geisbert) while his own efforts faltered because they had poor scientific rationale.
I wish Sina all the best in his life. However, the time has come for him to move beyond the current role and have USAMRIID be guided by others.

meat4thebeast

Hey Wacko-moco, about a year behind the curve on this one bud! No wonder you didn't like Bavari, he never was (still isn't) tolerant of 'Johnny-come-lately' types like yourself. Funny how you are critical of Bavari, reinforce the lies in this fake news story, and yet still have the nerve to wish him the best in his life! Sooooo, since we are now wishing in the conversation, I too have a wish: may you slither back under the rock from which you obviously just emerged, and never to be heard from again.

wocomoco

You obviously have no clue what it is about. Army's own report summarized it sufficiently to recommend his removal. From my own experience, to which I can testify, the report was long overdue.
It is human to wish somebody well despite the fact that his own people wanted him removed and officially petitioned for it.Sina's role is finished as the deal maker and he should do something else.
USAMRIID created its own downfall. Salaries were higher than at universities and costs to do research were also exorbitant. There were many examples of failed efforts but the last one was Ebola crisis which, if not for somebody's else's work, would have left US in a pretty dire situation. Intervention of Army was a decision made on higher levels after too many f..s and the letter from scientists, not to say the PR campaign about anthrax source. Details of problems are not for discussion at the open forum because it would give enemies ammunition to create something sinister. For now, go under your rock and repeat your mantra that you are the best. One day you will wake up with a hand in a night pot and say: s..t, how did it happen?
My kudos to those who see beyond narrow minded politics. It includes FBI and other services who decided to clean up the place.

meat4thebeast

I collaborated with Sina for 10+ years, and I know the reality of USAMRIID, so don't even try to justify your nonsense sonny boy. Plus, your 'come-back' is pretty unoriginal and simple minded - glad to see that I could get a rise out of you (and just when you seemed so civil with your 'best wishes' BS, we get to see your true colors. Finally, this 'night pot' about which you write is quite funny. Only some yokel from a 3rd world country, or a seriously old fart, would add such a reference. Regardless, it seriously undermines your 'credibility' any way you chose to read it. Reality: 1) you are still a johnny-come-lately, 2) this article was, and still is, fake news, and 3) The Bavari still runs USAMRIID, so in effect, your opinion is of no consequence. Therefore, you are dismissed. Now, and once again, slither back under your rock snake.

Paynestaker

Let's see. Nothing illegal happened. A person who never worked with the accused finds him heinous. Some employees don't like the boss and find him scary. Seems to me Dear Abby could have handled this 'problem' and saved the front page for news.

MJ Turner

I have worked on and off with Dr. Bavari for almost five years, and my experience has been very positive and inconsistent with the negative description of him and his leadership that this article reported. My personal line of research was not main-stream or typical for USAMRIID, yet Dr. Bavari saw novel potential for good in it and supported it whole heartedly - an action that has benefited me personally much more than it has benefited him. Furthermore, the article seemed to point to a strange contradiction, citing an army report that commanders with experience in science should be sought after to lead USAMRIID while at the same time suggesting that working as a scientist might be inconsistent with Dr. Bavari's position as the Director of Science. Overseeing a laboratory makes Dr. Bavari especially qualified to lead the institute effectively - and I have seen this in other institutions and universities around the country.

meat4thebeast

Your words are spot on MJ Turner! Long live the Bavari! Down with the worthless, soar grapes federal employees at USAMRIID who want to maintain the lazy status quo! The Army inspector should have recommended that Bavari be given the authority to totally clean house of all of the incompetent and dead wood research investigators at USAMRIID.

weedsinfrederick

This sounds like an internal personnel matter, not sure how this warrants reporting by the FNP. Also sounds like the "anonymous" sources are threatened by Sina's expertise more than his management style.

Kay29

The circumstances that prompted this article are troubling. First, how did the FNP know to submit a FOIA request to obtain an internal investigational report in response to a personnel related complaint? Second, are personnel related internal documents released under FOIA? If so, aren't such documents supposed to be redacted to protect the identity (name, unique title, etc.) of the person? It is shocking that personally identifying information in connection with a personnel related complaint was publicly released.

These troubling aspects make the astute reader wonder: What is the "real" story here? A case of valid whistleblowing? Or a case of workplace "mobbing" (bullying of an individual by a group)?

threecents

Some seem to be getting off track. The issue is not if he is a good productive scientist, and the issue is not whether civil servants are lazy. The issue is whether he behaved ethically or whether he broke rules and laws.

meat4thebeast

You read like a lazy government employee - AKA a "job for life" lottery winner. The article very, very briefly indicates that he broke no laws. The whole frivolous investigation was initiated by a group of vindictive 'colleagues' who fear change for the better; they want to maintain the status quo so that they can feel good about themselves in their condescending, self important fantasy world. Believe me, these people do not consider themselves to be public servants. They look down their noses at us ignorant citizens.

meat4thebeast

The only fear scientists at USAMRIID should have of Sina Bavari is if they are lazy, and there are a lot of lazy government scientists at USAMRIID. So sure, they are afraid. Sina Bavari is one of the few investigators at USAMRIID who is trying to do meaningful research with real world applicability. The complaints against him are literally the result of the jealously of other government investigators at the institute whose research is not good enough to receive funding from peer review sources (e.g., the NIH). With respect to the content of this article, Travis Warren is spot-on in his defense of Bavari. The main problem with USAMRIID, as alluded to above, is that it is mainly populated with 'dead wood,' government investigators who cannot be fired. They do nothing of scientific merit, but when someone like Bavari, who actually has drive, energy, and determination, is successful, they do anything they can to try to drag him down to their level of mediocrity. So sure, Bavari hires contractors because he understands how impossible it is to terminate lazy, ineffective, but tenured (i.e., guaranteed job for life! tantamount to hitting the lottery!) government scientists.

Booka

Sounds like a fight between a person who finally wants to make a difference (Dr.Bavari) and a team of seasoned "civilians" (Anonymous letter-writers) who do not want any changes until their retirement.

Jeffer92

What makes you think that they were civilians? The article does not state that.

Street92

Bavari is a minority and must not only be protected at all costs, but he must be celebrated, too. C'mon, folks, did you not get the memo from the FNP?

pappyjoe

This is the life for most people in yesterday and today`s world. You have the engineer of the train and then the caboose. The caboose does the work and the engineer gets the credit. In this field of work were your playing around with death you better run a tight ship. I guess the elite few was finding out the applications of virus they were developing and was cut because they knew to much on what`s and where`s the application is be used. It`s a dog eat dog world out there! So if you don`t want to be the fire hydrant then learn and except to be led by a leash.

bosco

Sounds like a guy I worked for in the '80s. He was all about everyone being a "team player" and thus it was his way or the highway. He ruined or slowed the careers of some good people until he was finally fired for misappropriation of funds and a host of other types of misconduct. It takes a while sometimes, but karma does get you in the end.

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