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Alice Gast

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Today, 25 September, is the first anniversary of the needless death of Stefan Grimm. This post is intended as a memorial.

He should be remembered, in the hope that some good can come from his death.

grimm

On 1 December 2014, I published the last email from Stefan Grimm, under the title “Publish and perish at Imperial College London: the death of Stefan Grimm“. Since then it’s been viewed 196,000 times. The day after it was posted, the server failed under the load.

Since than, I posted two follow-up pieces. On December 23, 2014 “Some experiences of life at Imperial College London. An external inquiry is needed after the death of Stefan Grimm“. Of course there was no external inquiry.

And on April 9, 2015, after the coroner’s report, and after Imperial’s internal inquiry, "The death of Stefan Grimm was “needless”. And Imperial has done nothing to prevent it happening again".

The tragedy featured in the introduction of the HEFCE report on the use of metrics.

“The tragic case of Stefan Grimm, whose suicide in September 2014 led Imperial College to launch a review of its use of performance metrics, is a jolting reminder that what’s at stake in these debates is more than just the design of effective management systems.”

“Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods ”

I had made no attempt to contact Grimm’s family, because I had no wish to intrude on their grief. But in July 2015, I received, out of the blue, a hand-written letter from Stefan Grimm’s mother. She is now 80 and living in Munich. I was told that his father, Dieter Grimm, had died of cancer when he was only 59. I also learned that Stefan Grimm was distantly related to Wilhelm Grimm, one of the Gebrüder Grimm.

The letter was very moving indeed. It said "Most of the infos about what happened in London, we got from you, what you wrote in the internet".

I responded as sympathetically as I could, and got a reply which included several of Stefan’s drawings, and then more from his sister. The drawings were done while he was young. They show amazing talent, but by the age of 25 he was too busy with science to expoit his artistic talents.

With his mother’s permission, I reproduce ten of his drawings here, as a memorial to a man who whose needless death was attributable to the very worst of the UK university system. He was killed by mindless and cruel "performance management", imposed by Imperial College London. The initial reaction of Imperial gave little hint of an improvement. I hope that their review of the metrics used to assess people will be a bit more sensible,

His real memorial lies in his published work, which continues to be cited regularly after his death.

His drawings are a reminder that there is more to human beings than getting grants. And that there is more to human beings than science.

Click the picture for an album of ten of his drawings. In the album there are also pictures of two books that were written for children by Stefan’s father, Dieter Grimm.

sg1

Dated Christmas eve,1979 (age 16)

 

Follow-up

Well well. It seems that Imperial are having an "HR Showcase: Supporting our people" on 15 October. And the introduction is being given by none other than Professor Martin Wilkins, the very person whose letter to Grimm must bear some responsibility for his death. I’ll be interested to hear whether he shows any contrition. I doubt whether any employees will dare to ask pointed questions at this meeting, but let’s hope they do.

There is a widespread belief that science is going through a crisis of reproducibility.  A meeting was held to discuss the problem.  It was organised by Academy of Medical Sciences, the Wellcome Trust, MRC and BBSRC, and It was chaired by Dorothy Bishop (of whose blog I’m a huge fan).  It’s good to see that scientific establishment is beginning to take notice.  Up to now it’s been bloggers who’ve been making the running.  I hadn’t intended to write a whole post about it, but some sufficiently interesting points arose that I’ll have a go.

The first point to make is that, as far as I know, the “crisis” is limited to, or at least concentrated in, quite restricted areas of science.  In particular, it doesn’t apply to the harder end of sciences. Nobody in physics, maths or chemistry talks about a crisis of reproducibility.  I’ve heard very little about irreproducibility in electrophysiology (unless you include EEG work).  I’ve spent most of my life working on single-molecule biophysics and I’ve never encountered serious problems with irreproducibility.  It’s a small and specialist field so I think if I would have noticed if it were there.  I’ve always posted on the web our analysis programs, and if anyone wants to spend a year re-analysing it they are very welcome to do so (though I have been asked only once).

The areas that seem to have suffered most from irreproducibility are experimental psychology, some areas of cell biology, imaging studies (fMRI) and genome studies.  Clinical medicine and epidemiology have been bad too.  Imaging and genome studies seem to be in a slightly different category from the others. They are largely statistical problems that arise from the huge number of comparisons that need to be done.  Epidemiology problems stem largely from a casual approach to causality. The rest have no such excuses.

The meeting was biased towards psychology, perhaps because that’s an area that has had many problems.  The solutions that were suggested were also biased towards that area.  It’s hard to see some of them could be applied to electrophysiology for example.

There was, it has to be said, a lot more good intentions than hard suggestions.  Pre-registration of experiments might help a bit in a few areas.  I’m all for open access and open data, but doubt they will solve the problem either, though I hope they’ll become the norm (they always have been for me).

All the tweets from the meeting hve been collected as a Storify. The most retweeted comment was from Liz Wager

@SideviewLiz: Researchers are incentivised to publish, get grants, get promoted but NOT incentivised to be right! #reprosymp

This, I think, cuts to the heart if the problem.  Perverse incentives, if sufficiently harsh, will inevitably lead to bad behaviour.  Occasionally it will lead to fraud. It’s even led to (at least) two suicides.  If you threaten people in their forties and fifties with being fired, and losing their house, because they don’t meet some silly metric, then of course people will cut corners.  Curing that is very much more important than pre-registration, data-sharing and concordats, though the latter occupied far more of the time at the meeting.  

The primary source of the problem is that there is not enough money for the number of people who want to do research (a matter that was barely mentioned).  That leads to the unpalatable conclusion that the only way to cure the problem is to have fewer people competing for the money.  That’s part of the reason that I suggested recently a two-stage university system.  That’s unlikely to happen soon. So what else can be done in the meantime?

The responsibility for perverse incentives has to rest squarely on the shoulders of the senior academics and administrators who impose them.  It is at this level that the solutions must be found.  That was said, but not firmly enough. The problems are mostly created by the older generation   It’s our fault.

IncidentalIy, I was not impressed by the fact that the Academy of Medical Sciences listed attendees with initials after peoples’ names. There were eight FRSs but I find it a bit embarrassing to be identified as one, as though it made any difference to the value of what I said.

It was suggested that courses in research ethics for young scientists would help.  I disagree.  In my experience, young scientists are honest and idealistic. The problems arise when their idealism is shattered by the bad example set by their elders.  I’ve had a stream of young people in my office who want advice and support because they feel they are being pressured by their elders into behaviour which worries them. More than one of them have burst into tears because they feel that they have been bullied by PIs.

One talk that I found impressive was Ottloline Leyser who chaired the recent report on The Culture of Scientific Research in the UK, from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.  But I found that report to be bland and its recommendations, though well-meaning, unlikely to result in much change.  The report was based on a relatively small, self-selected sample of 970 responses to a web survey, and on 15 discussion events.  Relatively few people seem to have spent time filling in the text boxes, For example

“Of the survey respondents who provided a negative comment on the effects of competition in science, 24 out of 179 respondents (13 per cent) believe that high levels of competition between individuals discourage research collaboration and the sharing of data and methodologies.&rdquo:

Such numbers are too small to reach many conclusions, especially since the respondents were self-selected rather than selected at random (poor experimental design!).  Nevertheless, the main concerns were all voiced.  I was struck by

“Almost twice as many female survey respondents as male respondents raise issues related to career progression and the short term culture within UK research when asked which features of the research environment are having the most negative effect on scientists”

But no conclusions or remedies were put forward to remedy this problem.  It was all put rather better, and much more frankly, some time ago by Peter Lawrence.  I do have the impression that bloggers (including Dorothy Bishop) get to the heart of the problems much more directly than any official reports.

The Nuffield report seemed to me to put excessive trust in paper exercises, such as the “Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers”.  The word “bullying” does not occur anywhere in the Nuffield document, despite the fact that it’s problem that’s been very widely discussed and a problem that’s critical for the problems of reproducibility. The Concordat (unlike the Nuffield report) does mention bullying.

"All managers of research should ensure that measures exist at every institution through which discrimination, bullying or harassment can be reported and addressed without adversely affecting the careers of innocent parties. "

That sounds good, but it’s very obvious that there are many places simply ignore it. All universities subscribe to the Concordat. But signing is as far as it goes in too many places.   It was signed by Imperial College London, the institution with perhaps the worst record for pressurising its employees, but official reports would not dream of naming names or looking at publicly available documentation concerning bullying tactics. For that, you need bloggers.

On the first day, the (soon-to-depart) Dean of Medicine at Imperial, Dermot Kelleher, was there. He seemed a genial man, but he would say nothing about the death of Stefan Grimm. I find that attitude incomprehensible. He didn’t reappear on the second day of the meeting.

The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) is a stronger statement than the Concordat, but its aims are more limited.  DORA states that the impact factor is not to be used as a substitute “measure of the quality of individual research articles, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions”. That’s something that I wrote about in 2003, in Nature. In 2007 it was still rampant, including at Imperial College. It still is in many places.  The Nuffield Council report says that DORA has been signed by “over 12,000 individuals and 500 organisations”, but fails to mention the fact that only three UK universities have signed up to DORA (oneof them, I’m happy to say, is UCL).  That’s a pretty miserable record. And, of course, it remains to be seen whether the signatories really abide by the agreement.  Most such worthy agreements are ignored on the shop floor.

The recommendations of the Nuffield Council report are all worthy, but they are bland and we’ll be lucky if they have much effect. For example

“Ensure that the track record of researchers is assessed broadly, without undue reliance on journal impact factors”

What on earth is “undue reliance”?  That’s a far weaker statement than DORA. Why?

And

“Ensure researchers, particularly early career researchers, have a thorough grounding in research ethics”

In my opinion, what we should say to early career researchers is “avoid the bad example that’s set by your elders (but not always betters)”. It’s the older generation which has produced the problems and it’s unbecoming to put the blame on the young.  It’s the late career researchers who are far more in need of a thorough grounding in research ethics than early-career researchers.

Although every talk was more or less interesting, the one I enjoyed most was the first one, by Marcus Munafo.  It assessed the scale of the problem (though with a strong emphasis on psychology, plus some genetics and epidemiology),  and he had good data on under-powered studies.  It also made a fleeting mention of the problem of the false discovery rate.  Since the meeting was essentially about the publication of results that aren’t true, I would have expected the statistical problem of the false discovery rate to have been given much more prominence than it was. Although Ioannidis’ now-famous paper “Why most published research is wrong” got the occasional mention, very little attention (apart from Munafo and Button) was given to the problems which he pointed out. 

I’ve recently convinced myself that, if you declare that you’ve made a discovery when you observe P = 0.047 (as is almost universal in the biomedical literature) you’ll be wrong 30 – 70%  of the time (see full paper, "An investigation of the false discovery rate and the misinterpretation of p-values".and simplified versions on Youtube and on this blog).  If that’s right, then surely an important way to reduce the publication of false results is for journal editors to give better advice about statistics.  This is a topic that was almost absent from the meeting.  It’s also absent from the Nuffield Council report (the word “statistics” does not occur anywhere).

In summary, the meeting was very timely, and it was fun.  But I ended up thinking it had a bit too much of preaching good intentions to the converted. It failed to grasp some of the nettles firmly enough. There was no mention of what’s happening at Imperial, or Warwick, or Queen Mary, or at Kings College London. Let’s hope that when it’s written up, the conclusion will be a bit less bland than those of most official reports. 

It’s overdue that we set our house in order, because the public has noticed what’s going on. The New York Times was scathing in 2006. This week’s Economist said

"Modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying -to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity.
Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis"

"Careerism also encourages exaggeration and the cherry­picking of results."

This is what the public think of us. It’s time that vice-chancellors did something about it, rather than willy-waving about rankings.

Conclusions

After criticism of the conclusions of official reports, I guess that I have to make an attempt at recommendations myself.  Here’s a first attempt.

  1. The heart of the problem is money. Since the total amount of money is not likely to increase in the short term, the only solution is to decrease the number of applicants.  This is a real political hot-potato, but unless it’s tackled the problem will persist.  The most gentle way that I can think of doing this is to restrict research to a subset of universities. My proposal for a two stage university system might go some way to achieving this.  It would result in better postgraduate education, and it would be more egalitarian for students. But of course universities that became “teaching only” would see (wrongly) as demotion, and it seems that UUK is unlikely to support any change to the status quo (except, of course, for increasing fees).
  2. Smaller grants, smaller groups and fewer papers would benefit science.
  3. Ban completely the use of impact factors and discourage use of all metrics. None has been shown to measure future quality.  All increase the temptation to “game the system” (that’s the usual academic euphemism for what’s called cheating if an undergraduate does it).
  4. “Performance management” is the method of choice for bullying academics.  Don’t allow people to be fired because they don’t achieve arbitrary targets for publications or grant income. The criteria used at Queen Mary London, and Imperial, and Warwick and at Kings, are public knowledge.  They are a recipe for employing spivs and firing Nobel Prize winners: the 1991 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine would have failed Imperial’s criteria in 6 years out of 10 years when he was doing the work which led to the prize.
  5. Universities must learn that if you want innovation and creativity you have also to tolerate a lot of failure.
  6. The ranking of universities by ranking businesses or by the REF encourages bad behaviour by encouraging vice-chancellors to improve their ranking, by whatever means they can. This is one reason for bullying behaviour.  The rankings are totally arbitrary and a huge waste of money.  I’m not saying that universities should be unaccountable to taxpayers. But all you have to do is to produce a list of publications to show that very few academics are not trying. It’s absurd to try to summarise a whole university in a single number. It’s simply statistical illiteracy
  7. Don’t waste money on training courses in research ethics. Everyone already knows what’s honest and what’s dodgy (though a bit more statistics training might help with that).  Most people want to do the honest thing, but few have the nerve to stick to their principles if the alternative is to lose your job and your home.  Senior university people must stop behaving in that way.
  8. University procedures for protecting the young are totally inadequate. A young student who reports bad behaviour of his seniors is still more likely to end up being fired than being congratulated (see, for example, a particularly bad case at the University of Sheffield).  All big organisations close ranks to defend themselves when criticised.  Even extreme cases, as when an employee commits suicide after being bullied, universities issue internal reports which blame nobody
  9. Universities must stop papering over the cracks when misbehaviour is discovered. It seems to be beyond the wit of PR people to realise that often it’s best (and always the cheapest) to put your hands up and say “sorry, we got that wrong”
  10. There an urgent need to get rid of the sort of statistical illiteracy that allows P = 0.06 to be treated as failure and P = 0.04 as success. This is almost universal in biomedical papers, and given the hazards posed by the false discovery rate, could well be a major contribution to false claims. Journal editors need to offer much better statistical advice than is the case at the moment.

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

The tragedy of the apparent suicide of Stefan Grimm is now known worldwide. His last email has been read by more than 160,000 people from over 200 countries. This post gathers together some of the reactions to his death. It’s a Christmas card for the people who are responsible.

gast
Alice Gast (president)
stirling
James Stirling (provost)
Kelleher
Dermot Kelleher (VP (health)

 

“This isn’t about science – it’s about bragging rights, or institutional willy-waving.” from Grimm’s Tale

tweet

The back story

On Monday 1st December I published Stefan Grimm’s last email. It has been read by more than 160,000 people from over 200 different countries.

On Tuesday 2nd December, Stefan Grimm’s immediate boss, Martin Wilkins, wrote to me. He claimed “We met from time to time to discuss science and general matters. These meetings were always cordial. ”

On Wednesday 3rd December, the Dean of Medicine, Dermot Kelleher, mailed all Faculty of Medicine staff (not the rest of the College). Read the letter. It said very little. But it did include the words

“I regret I did not know Stefan personally, and I looked to colleagues to describe to me his life and the impact of his work at Imperial “

It seems a bit odd that the Dean of Medicine did not know a senior professor, but that seems to be life at Imperial.

On Thursday 4th December, Times Higher Education printed the same last email, and also the text of a threatening letter sent to Grimm in March.by his boss, Martin Wilkins. The letter was very far from being cordial, contrary to what Wilkins claimed. It included these words.

“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.”

For a successful 51 year old with a good publication record to get a letter like that must have been devastating.

On Friday 5th December, Imperial made its first public announcement of his death. more than three months after it happened. By this time a damning account of his death had appeared even in the Daily Mail. The announcement read as though the world was unaware of his last words. It was a PR disaster: weasel words and crocodile tears. It made Imperial College appear to be totally heartless. The official announcement was accompanied by the phone numbers for the Samaritans. the chaplaincy and mental health first-aiders. Giving a person a phone number to call when you’ve destroyed their life is not an adequate substitute for treating staff properly.

Imperial are still trying to pretend that Grimm’s death is nothing to do with them, despite the fact that the whole world now knows quite enough of the facts to see otherwise.

The Coroner’s Inquest

The inquest into Grimm’s death was adjourned on October 8th, pending investigations into its cause. If you know anything relevant you should email the Coroner’s officer who is responsible for the investigation. That’s Molly Stewart (Molly.Stewart@lbhf.gov.uk). It is rather important that all the information doesn’t come from the College authorities, which cannot be relied on to tell the truth.

Some reports about the regime at Imperial College

Since my post went up on December 1st, I’ve had a stream of emails which testify to the reign of terror operated by the senior management at Imperial. The problem is by no means restricted to the Faculty of Medicine, though the problems seem to be worst there.

Many of these correspondents don’t want to speak in public. That’s certainly true of people who still work at Imperial, who have been warned to deflect all enquiries to HR. Here are some of the stories that I can reveal.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) results were announced on 18th December. All university PR people hunted through the results, and all found something to boast tediously about. The letter from Imperial’s provost, James Stirling (read it), is pretty standard stuff. as is the letter from the Dean of Medicine, Dermot Kelleher (read it). Needless to say, neither letter mentioned the price in human misery, and even death, that Imperial had paid for its high ranking. I felt compelled to tweet


Kelleher promoted. Astonishingly, the very next day, the Dean of Medicine, on whose watch Grimm died, was promoted. You can read the letter from Imperial’s president, Alice Gast, in which this is announced. He is to be Vice President (Health), as a reward no doubt, for the cruel regime he ran as Dean. The letter has all the usual vacuous managerial buzzwords, e.g. “to support and grow the multidisciplinary paradigm in health”. Remember DC’s rule number one: never trust anyone who uses the word ‘paradigm’. Needless to say, still no mention of treating staff better.

Dr William J Astle.

Dr Astle is one of many people who wrote to me about his experiences at Imperial College. Although he still appears on Imperial’s web site, he now works as a statistician in a bioinformatics team at the University of Cambridge (see their web site).

He wrote again on 23 October 2014, to pass on an email (read the mail) that was sent to Department staff after Grimm’s last email had been circulated.(on 21 October). It is from a Faculty Operating Officer and ends with a warning to refer media enquries to a PR person (the Press and Internal Communications Manager, John-Paul Jones).

When he saw the internal email from Provost James Stirling with the usual self-congratulatory stuff about the REF, Astle wrote again to Stirling, His letter ends thus.

“Putting university staff in fear of losing their jobs leads to an atmosphere of obsequiousness and obedience to authority that prevents academics from fulfilling their institutional role. In a free society it is essential academics have the autonomy to determine their line of work, to question institutional and state authority and to do risky research. Once again I emphasise – in my experience the atmosphere in the faculty of medicine at IC is not conducive to this.”

Stirling did not reply to this letter. Neither Gast nor Stirling have replied to mine either. Discourtesy seems to be part of the job description of senior managers.

Christine Yates

Christine Yates says

“I was employed at Imperial College London from s” August 2002 to October 2012. For these 10 years I was the College’s Equality and Diversity Consultant in the Human Resources Department, reporting to the HR deputy director, Kim Everitt. In turn, Kim Everitt reports to the HR director, Louise Lindsay. Throughout this time I was the College’s sole equalities consultant, and over time built up the Equalities Unit and managed a team of five.”

“I was dismissed on 8th October 2012 following a Disciplinary Hearing in response to an allegation of gross misconduct “for continued wilful refusal to follow your Head of Department’s (HOD) instructions not to be involved in individual cases”.

As part of her job, she was responsible for establishing and maintaining the Harassment Support Contact Scheme, which was designed to help staff who felt they were being harassed, bullied, and victimised. She was also responsible for the College’s first Athena SWAN (scientific women’s academic network) .successful application, along with the establishment of disabilities, race equalities, and sexual orientation networks, all of which attained quality professional kite marks over time. The Athena Swan award is particularly ironic, given that Imperial’s present brutal assessment system must be even more unfair to women than it is to men. In 2003 (when Richard Sykes was still in charge), a third of female employees at Imperial reported that they were bullied. The improvement since then seems to have been small.

One of many cases she dealt with involved the harassment and bullying of a senior female academic by her male boss. Yates maintains, with good evidence, that complaints about this behaviour were never investigated properly by HR. This displeased HR. Incidents like this undoubtedly contributed to her dismissal.

“In Dr ***’s [female] case, it is clear to me that no independent investigations have been held and that College procedures are being flouted or rnanipulated with the alleged harasser (Professor **** [male]) being protected and permitted to continue his misconduct.”

“In my position as the College’s Equalities Consultant, I was aware of many cases and outcomes. Or ***’s is one of the most distressing and badly handled cases I was witness to, and the manner in which HR protect senior academics who have gravely offended, and who under any reasonable circumstances would be found to be guilty of gross misconduct, is a sad indictment of Imperial College”

You can read the statement that Christine Yates has already sent to the Coroner’s officer. Unfortunately the attachments have had to be removed here because they deal with specific cases.

“The Coroner’s Office needs to be aware of the pattern of behaviour that ensues whenever bad practice is brought to the College’s attention. In response to whistle blows and other complaints the College tries to discredit the complainant. When this fails they will invariably state that they will hold a ‘review’ usually undertaken by those responsible for the bad behaviour and thus with a vested interest in covering up any misconduct and impropriety. It is noted this pattern remains unchanged, “

A problem with a paper

An anonymous correspondent has sent me a lot of emails that concern a paper that was in revision at the time of Grimm’s death. The title of the paper is “Role of non-coding RNAs in apoptosis revealed in a functional genome-wide screen”.

On October 6th, one author wrote to his co-authors “I worked closely with Stefan on the screen data this year. We re-interpreted the mathematical analysis performed in the original manuscript, providing a more rigorous statistical foundation of the gene rankings. As a result, the gene list Stefan and I have generated is now different.”.

Clearly Grimm was aware of the need for revision before he died. Given that everyone was under such intense pressure to publish, it’s likely that the prospect of a prolonged delay in publication might well have contributed to his depression and his death.

The author who wrote on October 6th outlined some options. One was to leave the paper as it was, but to include all the raw data and submit to a journal such as Plos One or the preprint server BioRxiv. This option “requires minimal work, and would result in no change in the author list. However we would aim for a lower-impact journal.”. His preferred option, though, was to rewrite the paper altogether (and for himself to become first co-author) “as it is in all our shared interest to get the work published in as good a journal as possible. “.

Two days later, on October 8th, the same author thanked his co-authors for their responses. As a result of the responses he got, he asked to have his name removed from the paper because he did not agree with what was contained in the manuscript. “However, given that I believe the gene list is wrong, I request my name to be removed from the author list. If any other authors do not wish for the raw data to be disclosed then I hope you think it’s reasonable for me to close off my involvement with the paper.”.

The paper has 11 authors, including Stefan Grimm. . I have written to all but one of the authors to try to ascertain the facts. Of the four co-authors who have replied, all but one said that they hadn’t seen the final paper. One said that they were unaware that they were on the author list, and said they probably shouldn’t be.

I have tried to protect the authors (some of whom are still at Imperial) by not mentioning their names. But one co-author is sufficiently senior to be mentioned by name. Alan Boobis answered by my mail cordially enough when I first wrote to him, but declined to give much useful information, apart from confirming that Grimm was the senior author on the paper. On October 9th he wrote to all co-authors, thus.

From: Boobis, Alan R [a.boobis@imperial.ac.uk]
Sent: 09 October 2014 18:15
To: xxxxxx [co-authors]
Subject: Re: News About Stefan & Screen Paper

Dear all

The situation regarding this manuscript needs to be dealt with rationally. There is a real danger that the reputations of individuals and of the College will be harmed. I suggest that we all need to agree the most appropriate way forward. I am out of the country this week but will have my secretary liaise with you next week to arrange a suitable time (face to face or by phone) to discuss this.

Best wishes,

Alan

I have no idea what the outcome of this meeting was. Personally. I always worry a bit when people want meetings “face to face or by phone”. Written records are much more informative.

I should like to make it clear that I’m not suggesting any misconduct whatsoever. The author who wished to withdraw acted with principle and courage, and mistakes happen. They are perhaps especially likely in multi-author papers where some authors don’t understand the input from others. But it is sad to see the emphasis on the long-discredited journal impact factor that was forced on them by Imperial’s policies. And it’s sad to see that several co-authors had not actually seen the final paper. This smacks of “citation-mongering”, yet another bad effect of the metrics culture that has pervaded all of academia, and which is enforced in an especially simple-minded way at Imperial.

This sad episode is yet another illustration of the way that Imperial’s policies are damaging people, and, in the end, damaging science.

Some discussions of the Imperial problem

Since Grimm’s last email was revealed, it’s been discussed in many blogs and articles. Here are a few of them.

Grimm’s tale (2 December). This perceptive blog reproduces part of the nasty threatening letter sent by Martin Wilkins to Grimm.

“Your current level of funding does not constitute the appropriate level for a professor at Imperial College. Unless you submit and are awarded a Platform grant as PI in the next 12 months we will seek to initiate disciplinary action against you.”

The author comments (my emphasis).

This isn’t about science – it’s about bragging rights, or institutional willy-waving. Grimm was informed – in public – that he was to be fired, and left waiting for the axe to fall while the axe-wielder marauded around the campus boasting about it like an even more pathetic Alan Sugar.”

That sums it up for me. It’s very sad.

Another blog comments

“Martin Wilkins to Professor Stefan Grimm, a few months before the latter committed suicide. Imperial College had been pressuring Grimm to get 200, 000 pounds in grants in order for him to remain employed. They threatened to sack him as he only had 135,000 pounds.

Sounds a lot like loan sharks.”

Clearly universities like Imperial are no longer places for scholarship. They are more like anxiety machines.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics produced an important report in the midst of the scandal about Grimm: The culture of scientific research 2014. Paragraph 1.7 produced a chilling statistic

1.7 Compromising on research integrity and standards

  • Almost six in ten (58%) respondents are aware of scientists feeling under pressure to
    compromise on research integrity and standards, with poor methodology and data fraud
    frequently mentioned in the free text responses.
  • Just over a quarter (26%) of those taking part in the survey have felt tempted to compromise
    on research integrity.

Stefan Grimm and the British University system. This blog, written by a geneticist. Federico Calboli, based in Helsinki, gives an indication of the harm that Imperial is inflicting not only on itself, but on the whole of UK academia, and hence on the UK economy

“As always in the real world the best laid plans often conflict with how the world actually works, and this conflict gives rise to a number of unintended consequences. The first unintended consequence is that the pursuit of what managements defines as ‘novel’ and ‘glamorous’ will diminish the intellectual value of British academia as a whole.”

“Unfortunately, since academia, funding bodies and the editorial boards of papers have been taken over by top down management culture, solid rigorous science is penalised in favour of anything that can be branded as ’novel’, ‘cutting edge’, ‘state of the art’ and similar platitudes.”

“This policy will leave British academia directionless and intellectually empty, and will transform any research in technology and data driven drivel that can at most pick up low hanging fruits and will deliver less and less as time goes on.”

Still more shaming, Calboli continues thus.

“The second problem with how British academia is managed is the culture of intellectual dishonesty that is forced upon people. People are not allowed to just express their goals in simple honest terms. They are required to spin and embellish everything in order to have half a chance of getting some funding or publishing in a high impact journal – both crucial to contribute to the ‘excellence metric”.

“Only the shameless cynics thrive in such environment”.

The blog finishes with a rallying cry.

“the email that Prof Grimm sent in October did not magically make its way to the press by itself. While many people are feeling disenchanted with academia and leave, more and more insiders are taking a combative stance against the mindless hogwash that threatens the foundations of British academia and the people that push it. We should all stand up and be counted, or we will not be able to complain in the future. It would be great if management could live up to its role and abandon the idea that scientific research is simple, predictable and quickly profitable, and actually help build the future of British academia.”

All this reflects similar sentiments to those that I expressed in 2007 [the RAE was the predecessor of the REF]

“The policies described here will result in a generation of ‘spiv’ scientists, churning out 20 or even more papers a year, with very little originality. They will also, inevitably, lead to an increase in the sort of scientific malpractice that was recently pilloried viciously, but accurately, in the New York Times, and a further fall in the public’s trust in science. That trust is already disastrously low, and one reason for that is, I suggest, pressures like those described here which lead scientists to publish when they have nothing to say.”

““All of us who do research (rather than talk about it) know the disastrous effects that the Research Assessment Exercise has had on research in the United Kingdom: short-termism, intellectual shallowness, guest authorships and even dishonesty”. Now we can add to that list bullying, harassment and an incompetent box-ticking style of assessment that tends to be loved by HR departments.

This process might indeed increase your RAE score in the short term (though there is no evidence that it it does even that). But, over a couple of decades, it will rid universities of potential Nobel prize winners.”

Conclusions

The policies adopted by Imperial College have harmed Imperial’s reputation throughout the world. Worse still, they have tainted the reputation of all UK universities. They have contributed to the corruption of science. and they have, in all probability, killed a successful man,

I hope that Alice Gast (president), James Stirling (provost). Dermot Kelleher (Dean, now vice president), and Martin Wilkins (who was left to weild the knife) have a good Christmas. If I were in their shoes, I’d feel so guilty that I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

They should spend Christmas reading Peter Lawrence’s wonderful essay on The Mismeasurement of Science. Please download a copy

Their proposal that HR policies should be investigated by, inter alia, the head of HR has provoked worldwide derision.

Their refusal to set up an independent external inquiry is reprehensible.

Not for the first time, a fine institution is being brought into disrepute by its leadership. Council please note.

gast
Alice Gast
stirling
James Stirling
Kelleher
Dermot Kelleher

 

Perhaps the best description of what’s going on is from Grimm’s Tale “This isn’t about science – it’s about bragging rights, or institutional willy-waving.”. Gast, Stirling and Kelleher should stop the willy-waving. They should either set about rectifying the damage they’ve done. Or they should resign. Now.

The chair of universities HR association, Kim Frost, said

“Bullying is a very emotive term, and what one person experiences as bullying will often be simple performance management from their manager’s point of view.”.

That’s scary because it shows that she hasn’t the slightest idea about “performance management”. I have news for HR people. They are called experiments because we don’t know whether they will work. If they don’t work that’s not a reason to fire anyone. No manager can make an experiment come out as they wish. The fact of the matter is that it’s impossible to manage research. If you want real innovation you have to tolerate lots and lots of failure. “Performance management” is an oxymoron. Get used to it.

This sorry episode has far more general lessons for the way the REF is conducted and for the metrics sales industry. Both share some of the guilt.

That will have to wait for another post.

Follow-up

25 December 2014. Universities "eliminate tenure because Starbucks does not have tenure"

I was struck by this excerpt from a Christmas newsletter from a colleague. Buried among the family news was buried this lament. He’s writing about Rush University, Chicago, but much the same could be said about many universities, not only in the USA.

Rush Medical Center built an $800 million hospital building that is clinically state-of-the-art and architecturally unique. Now it is poised to become a world class center of basic and clinical research. Sadly, rather than listen to researchers who have devoted their careers to Rush, senior administration hears advice from fly-by-night financial consultants who apply the same “Business Model” to medical care, education, and research as to a shoe factory. Perhaps because fiscal consulting requires little skill or training*, they do not distinguish between a researcher and a Starbucks employee [literally true!]. They eliminate tenure because Starbucks does not have tenure. {To be fair, they have only eliminated “tenure of salary” – one may continue working with a title, but without pay!} They cannot imagine that world-class research is an art that requires years of training, cultivating an international network of colleagues, and most importantly, continuity of funding. Because their work is so trivial, they cannot fathom that researchers could be utterly unique and irreplacable. And they do not care – they will destroy research at Rush, collect their multi-million dollar fee, and move on to the next shoe factory.


*Lesson 1.  Fire people who do real work, cut wages, steal from pension funds, eliminate unions and job security.  Congratulations you are now a qualified fiscal consultant!

26 December 2014

Grimm is not the only one. In the same month, September 2014, Tony Veitch was found dead. He was a senior scientist in the lab at Kew Botanical Gardens. He was 49, much the same age as Stefan Grimm. It’s presumed that he committed suicide after being told to reapply for his own job.

veitch

!7 January 2015

I hear that Imperial College’s UCU passed this motion.

Motion 3: Branch condemns bullying and harassment of staff at Imperial

This branch strongly condemns the bullying and harassment of staff at Imperial, particularly by some managers. We call upon the senior management of the College to ensure that all managers are properly trained to deal with staff in a fair and considerate manner and on how to refrain from bullying and harassment. In light of a recent tragic case at Imperial, the College management must ensure that they fulfil their duty of care to all staff at all times.

Of course every employer claims that they do this.

I wonder how the officials can mouth these platitudes when the facts, now well known, show them to be untrue,

The first post and this one have been viewed over 173.000 times, from at least 170 countries (UK, USA,and then almost 10,000 views from China). I realise that this must have harmed Imperial, but they have brought it on themselves. Neither the president nor the rector have had the courtesy to answer perfectly polite letters.

I wrote also on 29 December to the chair of Council. Eliza Manningham-Buller. She has still not acknowledged receipt, never mind replied.

I am amazed by the discourtesy of people who regard themselves as too important to reply to letters.

To chair of Council, Imperial College London 29 December 2014

Dear Lady Manningham-Buller

A problem with management at Imperial

It cannot have escaped your notice that a senior member of Imperial’s staff was found dead, after being told that he’d lose his job if he didn’t raise £200,000 in grants within a year.

When I posted Stefan Grimm’s last email on my blog on December 1st it went viral (Publish and perish at Imperial College London), It has been read by over 160,000 people from over 200 countries. That being the case, Imperial’s first official mention of the matter on December 4th looked pretty silly. It was written as though his email was not already common knowledge –totally hamfisted public relations.

After posting Grimm’s last mail, I was deluged with mails about people who had been badly treated at Imperial. I posted a few of them on December 23rd (Some experiences of life at Imperial College London. An external inquiry is needed after the death of Stefan Grimm).

The policy of telling staff that their research must be expensive is not likely to be appreciated by the taxpayer. Neither will it improve the quality of science. On the contrary, the actions of the College are very likely to deter good scientists from working there (I already heard of two examples of people who turned down jobs at Imperial).

I think it is now clear that the senior management team is pursuing policies that are damaging the reputation of Imperial. I hope that Council will take appropriate action.

Best regards

David Colquhoun
_________________________________________
D. Colquhoun FRS
Professor of Pharmacology,
NPP, University College London

20 January 2015

Today I got a reply to the letter (above) that I sent to Eliza Manningham-Buller on 29 December. You can download it.

reply from EMB

I guess it’s not surprising that the reply says nothing helpful.

It endorses the idea that HR should investigate their own practices, an idea that the outside world greets with ridicule.

It reprimands me for making "unprofessional" comments about individuals. That’s what happens when people behave badly. It would be unprofessional to fail to point out what’s going on. It’s the job of journalists to name people. All else is PR.

It suggests that I may have not followed the Samaritans’ guidelines for reporting of suicide. I’ve read their document and I don’t believe that either I, or Times Higher Education, have breached the guidelines.

The letter says. essentially, please shut up, you are embarrassing Imperial. It’s fascinating to see the rich and powerful close ranks when criticised. But it is very disappointing. It seems to me to be very much in the public interest to have published the last email of Stefan Grimm.

But I guess the last person you’d expect to champion transparency is an ex-head of MI5.

Felix, Imperial’s student newspaper, carried an interesting article Death of Professor Grimm: the world reacts. The events at Imperial have been noted all over the world (at least 170 countries according to my own Google analytics) but the response has been especially big in China. Alienating a country like China seems to me to rank as bringing the College into disrepute.

9 February 2015

Death in Academia and the mis-measurement of science. Good article in Euroscientist by Arren Frood

25 February 2015

I see that Dermot Kelleher is leaving Imperial for the University of British Columbia. Perhaps he hopes that he’ll be able to escape his share of the blame for the death of Stefan Grimm?   Let’s hope, for the sake of UBC, that he’s learned a lesson from the episode.

10 March 2015

The Vancouver Sun has been asking questions. An article by Pamela Fayerman includes the following.

"Recently, Imperial College was engulfed in a controversy involving a tragedy. . . . a medical school professor, Stefan Grimm, took his own life last fall. He left an email that accused unnamed superiors of bullying through demands that he garner more research grants. The “publish or peril” adage that scientists so often cite seems like it may apply in this case.

The college said it would set up an internal inquiry into the circumstances around the toxicology professor’s death, but the results have not been released. UBC provost Dave Farrar said in an interview that the death of the professor at Imperial College was never even discussed during the recruitment process.

Kelleher said in a long distance phone interview that the tragedy had nothing to do with his reasons for leaving Imperial. And he can’t speak about the case since it is currently under review by a coroner."

Well, I guess he would say that, wouldn’t he? Kelleher has been at Imperial for less than three years, and the generous intepretation of his departure is that he didn’t like the bullying regime. It had been going on long before Kelleher arrived, as documented on this blog in in 2007.

It’s interesting to speculate about why he wasn’t asked about Grimm’s death (if that’s true).

Did the University of British Columbia think it was irrelevant?

Or did they want him to establish a similar regime of “performance management” at UBC?

Or were the senior people at UBC not even aware of the incident?

Perhaps the third option is the most likely: it’s only too characteristic of senior managers to be unaware of what’s happening on the shop floor. Just as in banks.

11 March 2015

It’s beginning to look like an exodus. The chair of Imperial’s council, Eliza Manningham-Buller, is also leaving. Despite her condescending response to my inquiries, perhaps she too is scared of what will be revealed about bullying. I just hope that she doesn’t bring Imperial’s ideas about "performance management" to the Wellcome Trust.

Jump to follow-up

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.

ic

 

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.
http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/secretariat/collegegovernance/provisions/ordinances/d8"

[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).

Dear Colleagues,

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.

best wishes


Begin forwarded message:

From: Stefan Grimm <professorstefangrimm@gmail.com>

Date: 21 October 2014 23:41:03 BST

To: <big-email-list>

Subject: How Professors are treated at Imperial College

Dear all,

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”.

Best regards,

Stefan Grimm

 

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.

Follow-up

Here are a few of the tweets that appeared soon after this post appeared.

3 December 2014

The day after this post went public, I wrote to the vice-chancellor of Imperial College, thus.

To: alice.gast@imperial.ac.uk

cc: w.j.stirling@imperial.ac.uk, s.johal@imperial.ac.uk. d.humphris@imperial.ac.uk


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.

Best regards

David Colquhoun

__________________________________
D. Colquhoun FRS
Professor of Pharmacology
NPP, University College London
Gower Street

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.

Download Kelleher’s email.

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.

ICL 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

Dear Stefan

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.
http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/secretariat/collegegovernance/provisions/ordinances/d8

Should you have any questions on the above, please do get in touch.

Best wishes

Martin

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.

To: alice.gast@imperial.ac.uk

cc: w.j.stirling@imperial.ac.uk, s.johal@imperial.ac.uk. d.humphris@imperial.ac.uk, d.kelleher@imperial.ac.uk


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.

Best regards

David Colquhoun

__________________________________
D. Colquhoun FRS
Professor of Pharmacology
NPP, University College London
Gower Street

Here is a map of the location of 200 hits on 4 December (one of 20 such maps in a 4 hour period).

hitmap 4 dec

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.
Best wishes
Dermot

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