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Former lab head protests termination

Public health expert was fired after complaining about lab cutbacks, judge denies her whistleblower protection

Susan Warner

The Scientist

March 6, 2007

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[Note: This material is copyright by The Scientist, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Scientist.]

Former director of Iowa's state public health laboratory Mary Gilchrist, who was fired in a dispute with University of Iowa administrators over cutbacks to the size of a new lab, plans to continue her legal fight for reinstatement even after a judge last month refused her emergency request for protection as a whistleblower.

Gilchrist's attorney, Pat Ingram, told The Scientist Gilchrist will pursue a full jury trial to reclaim her job in a case that has raised questions about the state lab's capacity to handle a major outbreak of disease.

"Lab capacity is just like everything in public health. It's not appreciated until there is an outbreak and then it is too late," said Gilchrist in a telephone interview with The Scientist from Cairo, where she is working on a project for the Institute of Medicine.

In October Gilchrist was fired after she complained repeatedly about the university administration's decision to cut back on the size of a new lab building, set to replace the current Iowa state lab, housed in a former tuberculosis sanitorium built in 1917.

In September the legislature granted a $37 million appropriation to the university to build a new lab, but when it came time to approve final plans, university officials opted for a structure only 1.5% larger than the current facility. Gilchrist had argued it should be 15% bigger for "surge capacity" to house additional testing equipment and personnel to handle a major disease outbreak.

The difference in cost for the two buildings is nearly $4 million. Gilchrist said she had offered to make up the difference by delaying the purchase of furniture and equipment until additional funds could be raised, which would equalize the cost of the two proposals.

University administrators repeatedly asked Gilchrist not to approach state officials about the building, according to court papers filed with District Court Judge Denver D. Dillard. Gilchrist, former president of the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), whose research has been cited nearly 600 times, said she contacted two legislators to complain about the lab. "When the university decided to cut the size of the building and said I could not mention my concerns...I felt that was something that was absolutely impossible for me to do," said Gilchrist.

Last month Judge Dillard rejected Gilchrist's request for emergency reinstatement as lab head after two days of hearings. In his ruling, Dillard said Gilchrist's situation does not warrant immediate action and challenged her status as a whistleblower. "Whistle-blowing is not advocating for an ideal or best alternative," wrote Dillard. "Nor is it a euphemism for insubordination."

Steve Parrott, the University of Iowa's director of university relations, said the administration would not comment on Gilchrist's case because it is still in litigation.

Scott J. Becker, executive director of the APHL, said the Iowa case has raised questions about the right governance model for state public health labs. Most labs fall directly under the jurisdiction of the state health department although about 10% have a different model, many of them including a university affiliation, he said.

Becker said Iowa is the only state in which the lab falls completely within the jurisdiction of the university, raising questions about whether the responsibility for public health may conflict at times with other university missions. "It is a very bad idea to make this lab accountable to the university because the public health lab has to compete [for university funds] with every other entity from the department of home economics to athletics," said David Schoenbaum, a University of Iowa history professor who knows Gilchrist personally and has followed the case.

A bill introduced in the Iowa legislature in the wake of the Gilchrist controversy calls for the creation of an 11-member board to oversee the lab with a majority of members appointed by the Governor.

Links within this article

Mary Gilchrist

E. Russo, "Plight of the whistleblower," The Scientist, January 17, 2005.

JR Minkel, "Preparing for SARS," The Scientist, October 10, 2005.

K. Weir, "Gov't scientist fired over emails?" The Scientist, January 9, 2007.

David Schoenbaum