This week’s Times Higher Education carried a report of the death, at age 51, of Professor Stefan Grimm: Imperial College London to ‘review procedures’ after death of academic. He was professor of toxicology in the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial.
Now Stefan Grimm is dead. Despite having a good publication record, he failed to do sufficiently expensive research, so he was fired (or at least threatened with being fired).
“Speaking to Times Higher Education on condition of anonymity, two academics who knew Professor Grimm, who was 51, said that he had complained of being placed under undue pressure by the university in the months leading up to his death, and that he had been placed on performance review.”
Having had cause to report before on bullying at Imperial’s Department of Medicine, I was curious to know more.
Martin Wilkins wrote to Grimm on 10 March 2014. The full text is on THE.
"I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College."
"Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance (Ordinance D8) which can be found at the following link.
[The link to ordinances in this letter doesn’t work now. But you can still read them here (click on the + sign).]
It didn’t take long to get hold of an email from Grimm that has been widely circulated within Imperial. The mail is dated a month after his death. It isn’t known whether it was pre-set by Grimm himself or whether it was sent by someone else. It’s even possible that it wasn’t written by Grimm himself, though if it is an accurate description of what happened, that’s not crucial.
No doubt any Imperial staff member would be in great danger if they were to publish the mail. So, as a public service, I shall do so.
The email from Stefan Grimm, below, was prefaced by an explanation written by the person who forwarded it (I don’t know who that was).
You may have already heard about the tragic death of Professor Stefan Grimm a former member of the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College. He died suddenly and unexpectedly in early October. As yet there is no report about the cause of his death. Some two weeks later a delayed email from him was received by many of the senior staff of the medical school, and other researchers worldwide. It has been forwarded to me by one of my research collaborators. From my reading of it I believe that Stefan wanted it circulated as widely as possible and for that reason I am sending it to you. It is appended below.
This email represents just one side of an acrimonious dispute, but it may be indicative of more deep seated problems.
Begin forwarded message:
From: Stefan Grimm <email@example.com>
Date: 21 October 2014 23:41:03 BST
Subject: How Professors are treated at Imperial College
If anyone is interested how Professors are treated at Imperial College: Here is my story.
On May 30th ’13 my boss, Prof Martin Wilkins, came into my office together with his PA and ask me what grants I had. After I enumerated them I was told that this was not enough and that I had to leave the College within one year – “max” as he said. He made it clear that he was acting on behalf of Prof Gavin Screaton, the then head of the Department of Medicine, and told me that I would have a meeting with him soon to be sacked. Without any further comment he left my office. It was only then that I realized that he did not even have the courtesy to close the door of my office when he delivered this message. When I turned around the corner I saw a student who seems to have overheard the conversation looking at me in utter horror.
Prof Wilkins had nothing better to do than immediately inform my colleagues in the Section that he had just sacked me.
Why does a Professor have to be treated like that?
All my grant writing stopped afterwards, as I was waiting for the meeting to get sacked by Prof Screaton. This meeting, however, never took place.
In March ’14 I then received the ultimatum email below. 200,000 pounds research income every year is required. Very interesting. I was never informed about this before and cannot remember that this is part of my contract with the College. Especially interesting is the fact that the required 200,000.- pounds could potentially also be covered by smaller grants but in my case a programme grant was expected.
Our 135,000.- pounds from the University of Dammam? Doesn’t count. I have to say that it was a lovely situation to submit grant applications for your own survival with such a deadline. We all know what a lottery grant applications are.
There was talk that the Department had accepted to be in dept for some time and would compensate this through more teaching. So I thought that I would survive. But the email below indicates otherwise. I got this after the student for whom I “have plans” received the official admission to the College as a PhD student. He waited so long to work in our group and I will never be able to tell him that this should now not happen. What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine.
The reality is that these career scientists up in the hierarchy of this organization only look at figures to judge their colleagues, be it impact factors or grant income. After all, how can you convince your Department head that you are working on something exciting if he not even attends the regular Departmental seminars? The aim is only to keep up the finances of their Departments for their own career advancement.
These formidable leaders are playing an interesting game: They hire scientists from other countries to submit the work that they did abroad under completely different conditions for the Research Assessment that is supposed to gauge the performance of British universities. Afterwards they leave them alone to either perform with grants or being kicked out. Even if your work is submitted to this Research Assessment and brings in money for the university, you are targeted if your grant income is deemed insufficient. Those submitted to the research assessment hence support those colleagues who are unproductive but have grants. Grant income is all that counts here, not scientific output.
We had four papers with original data this year so far, in Cell Death and Differentiation, Oncogene, Journal of Cell Science and, as I informed Prof Wilkins this week, one accepted with the EMBO Journal. I was also the editor of a book and wrote two reviews. Doesn’t count.
This leads to a interesting spin to the old saying “publish or perish”. Here it is “publish and perish”.
Did I regret coming to this place? I enormously enjoyed interacting with my science colleagues here, but like many of them, I fell into the trap of confusing the reputation of science here with the present reality. This is not a university anymore but a business with very few up in the hierarchy, like our formidable duo, profiteering and the rest of us are milked for money, be it professors for their grant income or students who pay 100.- pounds just to extend their write-up status.
If anyone believes that I feel what my excellent coworkers and I have accomplished here over the years is inferior to other work, is wrong. With our apoptosis genes and the concept of Anticancer Genes we have developed something that is probably much more exciting than most other projects, including those that are heavily supported by grants.
Was I perhaps too lazy? My boss smugly told me that I was actually the one professor on the whole campus who had submitted the highest number of grant applications. Well, they were probably simply not good enough.
I am by far not the only one who is targeted by those formidable guys. These colleagues only keep quiet out of shame about their situation. Which is wrong. As we all know hitting the sweet spot in bioscience is simply a matter of luck, both for grant applications and publications.
Why does a Professor have to be treated like that?
One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, and then said: “Yes, they treat us like sh*t”.
There is now a way for staff to register their opinions of their employers.The entries for Imperial College on Glassdoor.com suggest that bullying there is widespread (on contrast, the grumbles about UCL are mostly about lack of space).
Googling ‘imperial college employment tribunal’ shows a history of bullying that is not publicised. In fact victims are often forced to sign gagging clauses. In fairness, AcademicFOI.com shows that the problems are not unique to Imperial. Over 3 years (it isn’t clear which years) , 810 university staff went to employment tribunals. And 5528 staff were gagged. Not a proud record
Imperial’s Department of Medicine web site says that one of its aims is to “build a strong and supportive academic community”. Imperial’s spokesman said “Stefan Grimm was a valued member of the Faculty of Medicine”.
The ability of large organisations to tell barefaced lies never ceases to amaze me.
I asked Martin Wilkins to comment on the email from Grimm. His response is the standard stuff that HR issues on such occasions. Not a word of apology, no admission of fault. It says “Imperial College London seeks to give every member of its community the opportunity to excel and to create a supportive environment in which their careers may flourish.”. Unless, that is, your research is insufficiently expensive, in which case we’ll throw you out on the street at 51. For completeness, you can download Wilkins’ mail.
After reading this post, Martin Wilkins wrote again to me (12.21 on 2nd December), He said
“You will appreciate that I am unable to engage in any further discussion – not because of any institutional policy but because there is an ongoing inquest into the circumstances of his death. What I can say is that there was no ongoing correspondence. We met from time to time to discuss science and general matters. These meetings were always cordial. My last meeting with him was to congratulate him on his recent paper, accepted by EMBOL "
The emails now revealed show that the relationship could hardly have been less “cordial”. Martin Wilkins appears to be less than frank about what happened.
If anyone has more correspondence which ought to be known, please send it to me. I don’t reveal sources (if you prefer, use my non-College email david.colquhoun72 (at) gmail.com).
The problem is by no means limited to Imperial. Neither is it universal at Imperial: some departments are quite happy about how they are run. Kings College London, Warwick University and Queen Mary College London have been just as brutal as Imperial. But in these places nobody has died. Not yet.
Here are a few of the tweets that appeared soon after this post appeared.
OMG. If you are an academic at a UK uni read this. Saddest thing I’ve read. Both for the individual and us all. http://t.co/g8xlQbLvDD
— GaryFoster (@Prof_GD_Foster) December 1, 2014
— Dr. Andy Holt (@DrAndyHolt) December 1, 2014
Accusation of a culture of bullying at Imperial from Stefan Grimm, written just before he died. http://t.co/NeXysWFjZM
— Suzi Gage (@soozaphone) December 1, 2014
— John Canning (@johngcanning) December 1, 2014
@david_colquhoun thank you for publishing this. Tragic.
— Melanie Byng (@ThetisMercurio) December 1, 2014
— Stephan Neuhaus (@stephanneuhaus1) December 1, 2014
— Michel Valstar (@MichelValstar) December 1, 2014
— Michael Head (@michaelghead) December 1, 2014
— Eric Kansa (@ekansa) December 1, 2014
— Dawn Bazely (@dawnbazely) December 1, 2014
— calloutloud (@blowthatwhistl1) December 2, 2014
— calloutloud (@blowthatwhistl1) December 2, 2014
— Scott Edmunds (@SCEdmunds) December 2, 2014
— Robert Davidson (@bobbledavidson) December 2, 2014
— Mark Brandon (@icey_mark) December 2, 2014
— Sylvia McLain (@girlinterruptin) December 2, 2014
— Tom Farsides (@TomFarsides) December 2, 2014
3 December 2014
The day after this post went public, I wrote to the vice-chancellor of Imperial College, thus.
cc: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Professor Gast
You may be aware that last night, at 18.30, I published Stefan Grimm’s last email, see http://www.dcscience.net/?p=6834
In the 12 hours that it’s been public it’s had at least 10,000 views. At the moment, 230 people. from all round the world, are reading it. It seems to be going viral.
I appreciate that you are new to the job of rector, so you may not realise that this sort of behaviour has been going on for years at Imperial (especially in Medicine) -I last wrote about the dimwitted methods being used to assess people in Medicine on 2007 -see http://www.dcscience.net/?p=182
Now it seems likely that the policy has actually killed someone (itwas quite predictable that this would happen, sooner or later).
I hope that your your humanity will ensure a change of policy in your approach to “performance management”.
Failing that, the bad publicity that you’re getting may be enough to persuade you to do so.
Today I updated the numbers: 44,000 hits after 36 hours.
I tried to put it politely, but I have not yet had a reply.
4 December 2014
More than one source at Imperial has sent me a copy of an email sent to staff by the dean of the Faculty of Medicine. It’s dated 03 December 2014 16:44. It was sent almost 24 hours after my post. It is, I suppose, just possible that Kelleher was unaware of my post. But he must surely have seen the internally-circulated version of Grimm’s letter. It isn’t mentioned: that makes the weasel words and crocodile tears in the email even more revolting than they otherwise would be. Both his account and Wilkins’ account contradict directly the account in Grimm’s mail.
Somebody is not telling the truth.
This post has broken all records (for this blog). It has been viewed over 50,000 times in 48 hours. It is still getting 35-40 visitors per minute, as it has for the last 2 days. How much longer will managers at Imperial be able to pretend that the cat hasn’t escaped from the bag?
5 December 2014
Late last night. Imperial made, at last. a public comment on the death of Stefan Grimm: Statement on Professor Stefan Grimm by Caroline Davis (Communications and Public Affairs). This bit of shameless public relations appears under a tasteful picture of lilies.
It says “Members of Imperial’s community may be aware of media reports of the tragic loss of Stefan Grimm, professor of toxicology in the Faculty of Medicine”. They could hardly have missed the reports. As of 07.25 this morning, this post alone has been viewed 97,626 times, from all over the world. The statement is a masterpiece of weasel words, crocodile tears and straw man arguments. “Contrary to claims appearing on the internet, Professor Grimm’s work was not under formal review nor had he been given any notice of dismissal”. I saw no allegations that he had actually been fired. He was undoubtedly threatened with being fired. That’s entirely obvious from the email sent by Martin Wilkins to Stefan Grimm. on 10 March. The full text of that mail was published yesterday in Times Higher Education.
It’s worth reproducing the full text of that mail. To write like that to a successful professor, aged 51, is simply cruel. It is obviously incompatible with the PR guff that was issued yesterday. It seems to me to be very silly of Imperial College to try to deny the obvious.
I don’t know how people like Martin Wilkins and Caroline Davis manage to sleep at night.
Date: 10 March 2014
I am writing following our recent meetings in which we discussed your current grant support and the prospects for the immediate future. The last was our discussion around your PRDP, which I have attached.
As we discussed, any significant external funding you had has now ended. I know that you have been seeking further funding support with Charities such as CRUK and the EU commission but my concern is that despite submitting many grants, you have been unsuccessful in persuading peer-review panels that you have a competitive application. Your dedication to seek funding is not in doubt but as time goes by, this can risk becoming a difficult situation from which to extricate oneself. In other words, grant committees can become fatigued from seeing a series of unsuccessful applications from the same applicant.
I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.
Over the course of the next 12 months I expect you to apply and be awarded a programme grant as lead PI. This is the objective that you will need to achieve in order for your performance to be considered at an acceptable standard. I am committed to doing what I can to help you succeed and will meet with you monthly to discuss your progression and success in achieving the objective outlined. You have previously initiated discussions in our meetings regarding opportunities outside of Imperial College and I know you have been exploring opportunities elsewhere. Should this be the direction you wish to pursue, then I will do what I can to help you succeed.
Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance (Ordinance D8) which can be found at the following link.
Should you have any questions on the above, please do get in touch.
These fixed performance targets are simply absurd. It’s called "research" because you don’t know how ir will come out. I’m told that if you apply for an Academic Clinical Fellowship at Imperial you are told
“Objectives and targets: The goal would be to impart sufficient training in the chosen subspecialty, as to enable the candidate to enter a MD/PhD programme at the end of the fellowship. During the entire academic training programme, the candidate is expected to publish at least five research articles in peer-reviewed journals of impact factor greater than 4.”
That’s a recipe for short term, unoriginal research. It’s an incentive to cut corners. Knowing that a paper has been written under that sort of pressure makes me less inclined to believe that the work has been done thoroughly. It is a prostitution of science.
Later on 5 December. This post has now had 100,000 views in a bit less that four days. At 13.30, I was at Kings College London, to talk to medical students about quackery etc. They were a smart lot, but all the questions were about Stefan Grimm.
The national press have begun to notice the tragedy. The Daily Mail, of all "newspapers" has a fair account of the death. It quotes Professor James Stirling, Provost of Imperial College London, as intoning the standard mantra:
“Imperial seeks to give every member of its community the opportunity to excel and to create a supportive environment in which their careers may flourish. Where we become aware that the College is falling short of this standard of support to its members, we will act”.
In my opinion the email above shows this is simply untrue. This sort of absurd and counterproductive pressure has been the rule in the Department of Medicine for years. I can’t believe that James Stirling didn’t now about it. If he did know, he should be fired for not anticipating the inevitable tragic consequences of his policies. If he didn’t know what was going on, he should be fired for not knowing. .
It is simply absurd for Imperial to allow (In)human resources to investigate itself. Nobody will believe the result.
An independent external inquiry is needed. Soon.
Stefan Grimm’s death is, ultimately, the fault of the use of silly metrics to mismeasure people. If there were no impact factors, no REF, no absurd university rankings, and no ill-educated senior academics and HR people who take them seriously, he’d probably still be alive.
8 December 2014
After one week, I wrote again to the senior management at Imperial (despite the fact that my earlier letters had been ignored). This time I had one simple suggestion. If Imperial want genuinely to set things right they should get an independent external inquiry. Their present proposal that the people who let things go so far should investigate themselves has been greeted with the scepticism that it so richly deserves. I still live in hope that someone will be sufficiently courteous to answer this time.
cc: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Professor Gast
My post of Stefan Grimm’s email last Monday evening, has been viewed 130,000 times from at least 175 different countries. Your failure to respond to my letters is public knowledge. When you finally posted a statement about Grimm on Thursday it so obviously contradicted the emails which I, and Times Higher Education had already published, that it must have done your reputation more harm than good.
May I suggest that the best chance to salvage your reputation would be to arrange for an independent external inquiry into the policies that contributed to Grimm’s death. You must surely realise that your announcement that HR will investigate its own policies has been greeted with universal scepticism. Rightly or wrongly, its conclusions will simply not be believed. I believe that an external inquiry would show Imperial is genuine in wishing to find out how to improve the way it treats the academics who are responsible for its reputation.
Here is a map of the location of 200 hits on 4 December (one of 20 such maps in a 4 hour period).
10 December 2014
Eventually I got a reply, of sorts, from Dermot Kelleher. It’s in the style of the true apparatchik "shut up and go away".
Dear Dr Colquhoun
Many thanks for your enquiry. Can I just say that College will liaise with the Coroner as required on this issue. In light of this, I do not believe that further correspondence will be helpful at present.
51 Responses to Publish and perish at Imperial College London: the death of Stefan Grimm
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