We hear a lot about leadership these days. It has become one of the favourite buzzwords of those who do neither research not teaching. The word occurred six times in a recent HR-speak document that was sent to explain the criteria for promotion to a chair. Quite what it means is never clear. Could it just be a talent for telling other people to do things that the leader can’t do himself? (People who describe themselves as leaders are, needless to say, mostly male.) Only too often those who call themselves ‘leaders’ turn out to be suffering from the Siegfried delusion -in the words of Ernest Newman, overgrown boy scouts.
One thing that leadership certainly should include is setting a good example in ethical behaviour. So what’s going wrong?
We’ve seen the case of Howard Newby. We’ve seen vice-chancellors (12 of them) refuse point blank to respond to enquiries about how they justify running degrees in alternative quackery, despite the fact that even the Queen’s Homeopathic physician thinks it is unjustified to run BSc degrees in homeopathy (watch him say so).
We’ve seen the malign influence of corporate money (most strikingly in the UK in the notorious case of the University of Sheffield). We have seen ghost-writing and spin tolerated, and even encouraged, not to mention sham consultations and attempts to impose the Wal-Mart values of PricewaterhouseCooper on research.
Here are two more interesting examples of ‘leadership’.
Professor Sir Roy Anderson
|Next year, the rector of Imperial, Richard Sykes, will be replaced by Roy Anderson, epidemiologist and Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Ministry of Defence,. Sykes is the chap who (with a little help from my first attempt at a web campaign) failed in his messianic attempt to take over UCL in 2002.|
Imperial rector with a past
In June this year, Imperial College London announced that Roy Anderson, a distinguished epidemiologist and former chief scientific adviser to the MoD, would succeed Richard Sykes to become rector next year. An internationally renowned academic and researcher, Anderson is amply qualified for this ambassadorial role in the British scientific establishment. Yet some, including the former director of the Wellcome Trust, Bridget Ogilvie, have remarked to Prospect that parts of the scientific community were “very surprised” at Anderson’s selection in view of the controversies seven years ago that surrounded his professorship at Oxford.
The first scandal arose when Anderson accused a female colleague of having won support for her post via a relationship with her head of department—a claim he was eventually forced to retract as untrue, and which was a major factor in his subsequent resignation from Oxford. At around the same time, Anderson’s resignation from the board of the Wellcome Trust was announced, prompted in part by his failure fully to disclose his relationship with a private biomedical consultancy during his time at Oxford, in breach of the trust’s financial guidelines.
It should, of course, be emphasised that Anderson did nothing illegal; he has always been admired as a dynamic leader, and some feel that the “Oxford scandals” can now be set aside as isolated incidents in an otherwise unblemished career. It will be interesting to see what he makes of his new position.
But perhaps most damaging was the downfall of Roy Anderson, a leading epidemiologist, and one of the governors who run the trust. Anderson, who also directed the Wellcome Trust Centre for the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at Oxford University, was forced to resign from the university, the centre and as a trust governor, following the publication of two damning reports into his management of the Oxford centre. Initially triggered by allegations that Anderson had made sexual slurs against a female colleague chosen for a senior position at Oxford, the investigations went on to examine his failure fully to disclose business interests that had become entangled with the Wellcome centre’s research activities.
A lot of people seem to be quite puzzled by Imperial’s choice of leader.
Sir John Chisholm
|Mild surprise greeted the news that the chairman of the Medical Research Council (MRC), John Chisholm, is also Executive Chairman and former Chief Executive of QinetiQ (the privatised version of the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence Evaluation and Research Agency). Was this sort of some job creation scheme? The arms merchants providing customers for the health service?|
The Parliamentary science and technology committee, certainly had reservations (“New medical research chair unfit for job, say MPs“).
An editorial in the British Medical Journal (March 2007) commented on this unholy mix, thus.
“In a recent editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Richard Smith drew attention once again to the paradoxical and disturbing association between Reed Elsevier, a huge global publishing company, and the international arms trade.1 While promoting world health through its publications, including the Lancet, Reed Elsevier also organises international trade fairs for the arms industry. By facilitating the sale of armaments, Reed Elsevier is directly implicated in causing untold damage to health.”
In March 2007. Nature commented
“The MRC faces other challenges, too. Last October saw its appointment of a chair, John Chisholm, who has a strong track record in privatizing defence research laboratories. He has recently sent signals that have left MRC researchers dumbfounded. To judge by recent statements, he views biomedical research as being applied research by definition, and sees fundamental research to be all but irrelevant.”
According to a report from the National Audit Office, the Treasury sold off its arms research to the US private equiry group far too cheaply. A handful of directors made staggering personal fortunes from the deal. This interchange occurred in the minutes of evidence to the Committee of Public Accounts (Monday 3 November 2007). The chairman was Edward Leigh (Conservative MP for Gainsborough).
Q18 Chairman: Yes, because you told the Defence Committee on 28 February 2001: “In regard to people who were already in the organisation, certainly when they have proved themselves successful they can expect to earn a reward but they cannot expect to earn it just because we have been privatised”.
What the public think is that it is frankly appalling. It goes totally against any concept of ethical capitalism, Sir John, that you can put £100,000 into a business and emerge with £25 million of taxpayer’s money. Nobody from outside can understand it. Do you have any sense of shame here before us?
Sir John Chisholm: I have a considerable sense of having led a team to create £1 billion worth of value for the taxpayer. I think that is a great achievement by the team.
Q19 Chairman: Why should your poor staff get £9 for every pound they put in but you get £200 for every pound that you put in? Do you think that is fair?
Sir John Chisholm: I believe in any deal like this there was a contractual agreement put by the investor to the management team that had considerable risk for the management team at the time and they signed up to it.
. . . .
Q30 Mr Touhig (Lab,Islwyn): You see our concern, because one of the first things that Carlyle did when it became the preferred bidder was to change the planned management incentive scheme following representations from the QinetiQ Board. The outcome of this, as the Chairman has pointed out, was that top management got almost a 20000% increase on the return on their investment. Sir John, that is not so much the unacceptable face of capitalism as the unacceptable face of greed, is it not?
Sir John Chisholm: I do not accept that, no.
So not much concern for “ethical capitalism” there.
Is this what we are meant to learn on the ‘leadership’ courses that are springing up everywhere?
Is this the sort of example to set to young scientists about how to succeed?
Is this how to get good science?
I think not.
From Private Eye 26 January 2008.
£100m. Profits gained by senior executives through QinetiQ privatisation
£75m. QinetiQ pension deficit, now being addressed by additional staff contributions.