Come August 31, the vice president in charge of Aggie research is stepping down. The end of Richard Ewing's tenure will unfortunately be remembered for a major federal investigation.
Richard Ewing says he's taking off a few of his many hats in order to ensure safety in Texas A&M labs. The swirling scandal is around a pair of 2006 incidents that left researchers infected by bioweapons agents. To help stop the swirl, Ewing will drop the hat of Vice President for Research.
"There are some things that we need to do to get back into compliance, some ideas of some things to do, and so one of the issues is I wanted to free myself of the other things that I'm trying to do right now as Vice President for Research and focus more time to really respond to the issues raised," Ewing said in a conference call Thursday.
It's since August of 2000 that Ewing has held that vice presidential title. Among his others are as a distinguished professor of mathematics and the director of the Institute for Scientific Computation. He will also retain the title of Responsible Official for A&M, a role required by the CDC with respect to agent research.
"As Responsible Official, I feel that it's my responsibility to make sure that we come back to full compliance, and I need to have the time to focus on that," Ewing said.
However, Ewing adds that once he's satisfied A&M is in full compliance, he'll also drop the Responsible Official hat. They are moves Ewing says he's been thinking about making for a year.
The incidents in question came in the early portions of 2006. In the first case that came to light, documents show a researcher was infected with the brucella bacteria after a cleaning mishap. The CDC was not notified of this incident until months later, well past the time it should have been reported. A&M has admitted fault in that case, and says it has changed its policies in the aftermath.
The second case that came out was where three researchers were infected with Q-Fever, another bioweapons agent. Following the policy changes, A&M says they did report the incident.
"In terms of spending physical time in the lab, I wasn't spending much time in the lab," Ewing said. "I had several staff members under me that were."
As to whether enough time was spent monitoring lab work, Ewing said "it's very, very hard for me to assess that. I thought we had an absolute system set up. We had a human error that caused something to fail. That's all I can say."
Ewing says the CDC has made preliminary suggestions from visits to Texas A&M as part of the federal investigation, but would not give details as the investigation is still on-going. A full, final report is expected in the next few weeks.
Ewing also says the university should have the proper information in order to reregister to conduct Homeland Security research in the next couple of weeks.
Congressman Chet Edwards has spent time as District 17's representative working to bulk up funding for A&M defense research.
"I will respect the decisions made by the A&M leadership to address these problems and to accept responsibility for whatever mistakes were made," Edwards (D-District 17) said. "Then, we have to move forward. We can't be mired in the past, and A&M will continue to do nationally significant research in many, many areas."
The university faces fines and other penalties in the wake of the incidents. Final rulings should come in the next few weeks.