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.”
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.
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.
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.”