The last email of Stephan Grimm has had more views than any other on this blog. “Publish and perish at Imperial College London: the death of Stefan Grimm“. Since then it’s been viewed more than 210,000 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“.
On September 24th 2015, I posted a memorial on the first anniversary of his death. It included some of Grimm’s drawings that his mother and sister sent to me.
That tragedy led to two actions by Imperial, the metrics report (2015) and the bullying report (2016).
Let’s look at the outcomes.
The 2015 metrics report
In February 2015 and investigation was set up into the use of metrics to evaluate people, In December 2015 a report was produced: Application and Consistency of Approach in the Use of Performance Metrics. This was an internal enquiry so one didn’t expect very much from it. Out of 1338 academic staff surveyed at the College, 309 (23% of the total) responded
another 217 started the survey but did not submit anything). One can only speculate about the low return. It could be that 87% of staff were happy, or it could be that 87% of staff were frightened to give their opinions. It’s true that some departments use few if any metrics to assess people so one wouldn’t expect strong responses from them.
My position is clear: metrics don’t measure the quality of science, in fact they corrupt science.
This is not Imperial’s view though. The report says:
5.1 In seeking to form a view on performance metrics, we started from the premise that, whatever their benefits or deficiencies, performance metrics pervade UK universities. From REF to NSS via the THE and their attendant league tables, universities are measured and ranked in many dimensions and any view of performance metrics has to be formed in this context.
In other words, they simply acquiesce in the use of measures that demonstrably don’t do what’s claimed for them.
Furthermore the statement that “performance metrics pervade UK universities” is not entirely true. At UCL we were told in 2015.
“We will evaluate the quality of staff contributions appropriately, focusing on the quality of individual research outputs and their impact rather than quantity or journal-level metrics.” .
And one of the comments quoted in Imperial’s report says
“All my colleagues at MIT and Harvard etc tell me they reject metrics because they lead to mediocre candidates. If Imperial really wants to be a leader, it has to be bold enough to judge based on quality.”
It is rather shameful that only five UK universities (out of 114 or so) have signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). I’m very happy that UCL is one of them, along with Sussex and Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. Imperial has not signed.
Imperial’s report concludes
“each department should develop profiles of its academic staff based on a series of published (ie open and transparent [perhaps on the College intranet]:”
There seems to be a word missing here. Presumably this means “open and transparent metrics“.
The gist of the report seems to be that departments can carry on doing what they want, as long as they say what it is. That’s not good enough, in my opinion.
A review of Imperial College’s institutional culture and its impact on gender equality
Unlike the metrics report, this one was external: that’s good. But, unlike the metrics report, it is secret: that’s bad.
The report was written by Alison Phipps (Director of Gender Studies and Reader in Sociology University of Sussex). But all that’s been released is an 11 page summary, written by Imperial, not by the authors of the report. When I asked Phipps for a copy of the whole report I was told
“Unfortunately we cannot share the full report – this is an internal document to Imperial, and we have to protect our research participants who told us their stories on this basis.”
It’s not surprising that the people who told their stories are afraid of repercussions. But it’s odd that their stories are concealed from everyone but the people who are in a position to punish them.
The report seems to have been commissioned because of this incident.
“The university apologised to the women’s rugby team after they were left playing to an empty stadium when the coaches ferrying spectators back to campus were allowed to leave early.”
“a member of staff was overheard saying that they did not care “how those fat girls” got home,”
But the report wasn’t restricted to sexism. It covered the whole culture at Imperial. One problem was that only 127 staff
and 85 students participated. There is no way to tell whether those who didn’t respond were happy or whether they were scared.
Here are some quotations from Imperial’s own summary of the secret report.
“For most, the meaning was restricted to excellence in research despite the fact that the College’s publicised mission statement gives equal prominence to research and education in the excellence context”
“Participants saw research excellence in metricised terms, positioning the College as a top-level player within the UK and in the world.”
Words used by those critical of Imperial’s culture included ” ‘cutthroat’, ‘intimidating’, ‘blaming’ and ‘arrogant’ “.
“Many participants in the survey and other methods felt that the external focus on excellence had emphasised internal competition rather than collaboration. This competition was noted as often being individualistic and adversarial. ”
“It was felt that there was an all-consuming focus on academic performance, and negative attitudes towards those who did not do well or who were not as driven as others. There was a reported lack of community spirit in the College’s culture including departments being ‘played off against each other’”
“The research findings noted comments that the lack of communal space on the campus had contributed to a lack of a community spirit. It was suggested that the College had ‘an impersonal culture’ and groups could therefore self-segregate in the absence of mechanisms for them to connect. ”
“There were many examples given to the researchers of bullying and discriminatory behaviour towards staff and students. These examples predominantly reflected hierarchies in work or study arrangements. ”
“The researchers reported that many of the participants linked it with the ‘elite’ white masculinity of the majority population, although a few examples of unacceptable behaviour by female staff and students were also cited. Examples of misogynistic and homophobic conduct were given and one interviewee expressed concern that the ‘ingrained misogyny’ at Imperial was so deep that it had become normal.”
“Although the College describes itself as a supportive environment, and many positive examples of that support were cited, a number of participants felt that senior management would turn a blind eye to poor behaviour if the individual involved was of value to the College.”
“Despite Imperial’s ‘no tolerance’ stance on harassment and bullying and initiatives such as ‘Have Your Say’, the researchers heard that people did not ‘speak up’ about many issues, ranging from discrimination and abuse to more subtle practices that leave people feeling vulnerable, unheard or undermined.”
“Relations between PIs and contract researchers were especially difficult, and often gendered as the PI was very often a man and the researcher a woman.”
“It was reported that there was also a clear sense of staff and students feeling afraid to speak up about issues and not receiving clear information or answers due to unclear institutional processes and one-way communication channels.”
“This representation of Imperial College as machine rather than organism resonated with observations on a culture of fear and silence, and the lack of empathy and community spirit at the College.”
“Some of the participants identified a surface commitment to diversity and representation but a lack of substantive system processes to support this. The obstacles to participation in the way of doing things at Imperial, and the associated issues of fear and insecurity, were reported as leading to feelings of hopelessness, demotivation, and low morale among some staff and students.”
“Some participants felt that Athena SWAN had merely scratched the surface of issues or had just provided a veneer which concealed continuing inequalities and that events such as the annual Athena SWAN lecture were little more than a ‘box ticking exercise.’”
The conclusions are pretty weak: e.g.
“They [the report’s authors] urged the College to implement changes that would ensure that its excellence in research is matched by excellence in other areas.”
Of course, Imperial College says that it will fix the problems. “Imperial’s provost, James Stirling, said that the institution must do better and was committed to gender equality”.
But that is exactly what they said in 2003
“The rector [then Richard Sykes] acknowledged the findings that came out of the staff audit – Imperial College – A Good Place to Work? – undertaken in August 2002.”
“He reinforced the message that harassment or bullying would not be tolerated in the College, and promised commitment from Council members and the Executive Committee for their continuing support to equal opportunities.”
This was eleven years before the pressure applied to Stefan Grimm caused him to take his own life. As always, it sounds good. But it seems that, thirteen years later, Imperial is going through exactly the same exercise.
It would be interesting to know whether Imperial’s Department of Medicine is still adopting the same cruel assessment methods as it was in 2007. Other departments at Imperial have never used such methods. It’s a continual source of bafflement to me that medicine, the caring profession, seems to care less for its employees that most other departments.
Imperial is certainly not unique in having these problems. They are endemic. For example, Queen Mary, Kings College London and Warwick University have had similar problems, among many others.
Managers must learn that organisations function better when employees have good morale and are happy to work. Once again, I quote Scott Burkun (The myths of Innovation, 2007).
“Creation is sloppy; discovery is messy; exploration is dangerous. What’s a manager to do? The answer in general is to encourage curiosity and accept failure. Lots of failure.”
All big organisations are much the same -dissent is squashed and punished. Committees are set up. Fine-sounding statements are issued. But nothing much changes.
It should not be so.
The last email of Stefan Grimm, and its follow-up post, has been read over 195,000 times now.
After Grimm’s death, Imperial announced that it would investigate itself The report is now available.
Performance Management: Review of policies, procedures and support available to staff
Following the tragic death of a member of the College’s staff community, Professor Stefan Grimm, the Provost invited the Senior Consul, Professor Richard Thompson, and the Director of Human Resources, Mrs Louise Lindsay, to consider the relevant College policies, procedures and the support available to all staff during performance review.
The report is even worse than I expected. It can be paraphrased as saying ‘our bullying was not done sufficiently formally -we need more forms and box-ticking’.
At the heart of the problem is Imperial’s Personal Review and Development Plan (PRDP). Here is an extract.
"Professor Grimm had been under review in the informal process for nearly two years. His line manager was using this period to help Professor Grimm obtain funding or alternative work (the review panel saw evidence of the efforts made in this regard). The subsequent formal process would have involved a minimum of two formal meetings with time to improve in-between formal meetings before consideration would have been given to the termination of Professor Grimm’s employment. Understandably there is a reluctance to move into formal hearings, particularly when the member of staff is hard working and diligent, but the formal stages would have provided more clarity to Professor Grimm on process and support through the written documentation, representation at meetings and HR involvement."
"It is recommended that the new capability procedure and ordinance include greater clarity on timescales for informal action and how this might operate in different roles."
It seems to be absurd to describe Wilkins’ letter has an attempt to "help" Professor Grimm, It was a direct threat to the livelihood of a competent 51 year-old full professor. Having flow charts for the bullying would not have helped. Neither would the provision by HR of "resilience" courses (what I’ve seen of such classes makes me feel suicidal at the thought of how far universities have sunk into pseudo-scientific HR babble).
I’ll skip straight to the conclusions, with my comments on them in italic.
1. Expand the Harassment Support Contact Programme to train volunteers, academic staff, who can be matched with individuals going through informal processes.
Looks like a charade to me. If they want to fire people without enough grants, they’ll do it.
2. Refresh and re-launch information on the employee assistance services widespread distribution and regular update of promotional material.
3. Ensure regular training is given to new and experienced managers in core HR procedures.
Train senior people to bully properly.
4. Create a separate guidance and support document for staff to supplement document. The document to include a clear and concise summary of the informal formal process, a flowchart, the support available to staff and frequently asked questions
Pretend that staff are being helped by threatening to fire them.
5. Direct managers to inform HR before commencing the informal stage of performance management. All managers to have a briefing from their local HR representative of the instigation of performance management.
Make sure you’ve filled in the forms and ticked the boxes before you start bullying. HR don’t understand performance and should have no role in the process.
6. Create a separate policy for performance management in the form of procedure, which includes clear definitions for informal and formal performance
management and further guidance on the timescales and correspondence in stages. Provide clarity on the role of the PRDP appraisal in performance management.
The role PRDP is to increase the status of Imperial College, but pretend it’s to benefit its victims.
7. Create template documentation for performance management correspondence and formal stages of the process. Direct managers to ensure all correspondence reviewed by an HR representative before it is sent to a member of staff.
Bullying is OK if you’ve filled in enough forms.
In summary, these proposals merely add more bureaucracy. They won’t change anything. As one supposed, they are merely a smokescreen for carrying on as at present.
There is only one glimmer of hope in the whole report.
Although this was not within the remit of the current review, a number of concerns were raised with the reviewers about the application and consistency of approach in the use of performance metrics in academia and in the College. The reviewers recommend that the College undertake a wider consultation and review of the application of performance metrics within Imperial College with recommendations to be considered by the Provost’s Board in the summer term.
I’ve been telling them since 2007 that the metrics they use to judge people are plain silly [download the paper]. So have many other people. Could the message have sunk in at last? We’ll see.
What should be done about performance?
I’ve been very critical of the metrics that are used by Imperial (and some other places) to harass even quite senior people. So, it might well be asked how I think that standards should be maintained. If people are paid by the taxpayers, it isn’t unreasonable to expect them to work to the best of their abilities. The following observations come to mind.
- Take a lesson from Bell Labs in its heyday (before performance managers got power) . "First, management had to be technically competent; at Bell Labs, all managers were former researchers. Second, no researchers should have to raise funds. They should be free of that pressure. Third, research should and would be supported for years – if you want your company to last, take the long view. And finally, a project could be terminated without damning the researcher. There should be no fear of failure."
- Take a lesson from the great Max Perutz about how to run a successful lab."Max had the knack of picking extraordinary talent. But he also had the vision of creating a working environment where talented people were left alone to pursue their ideas. This philosophy lives on in the LMB and has been adopted by other research institutes as well. Max insisted that young scientists should be given full responsibility and credit for their work. There was to be no hierarchy, and everybody from the kitchen ladies to the director were on first-name terms. The groups were and still are small, and senior scientists work at the bench."
- Read Gus John "The results of the Guardian higher education network’s survey on bullying in higher education should give the entire sector cause to worry about the competence and style of leaders and managers in the sector"
- The vast majority of scientists whom I know work absurdly long hours. They are doing their best without any harassment from "performance managers". Some are more successful, and/or lucky, than others. That’s how it is. Get used to it.
- Rankings of universities are arbitrary and silly, but worse, they provide an incentive to vice-chancellors to justify their vast salaries by pushing their institution up the rankings by fair means or foul. It’s no exaggeration to suspect that things like the Times Higher Education rankings and the REF contributed to the death of Stefan Grimm.
- Realise that HR know nothing about science: their "performance management" kills original science, and it leads to corruption. It must bear some of the blame for the crisis in the reproducibility of published work.
- If you want innovation, you have to tolerate lots and lots of failure
Stop press On April 7th, the coroner said the Grimm had asphyxiated himself on 25 September, 2014. He described the death as "needless"/ And Imperial’s HR director, Louise Lindsay, when asked if the new procedures would have saved his life, said "not clear it would have resulted in a different outcome.". So we have it from the horse’s mouth. Imperial has done nothing to prevent more tragedies happening.
10 April 2015
King’s College London has just issued a draft for its "performance management" system. You can read all about it here.
"Performance management is a direct incentive to do shoddy short-cut science."
17 April 2015
Alice Gast declines to apologise
At 06.22 on Radio 4’s Today Programme, Tanya Beckett interviewed Alice Gast. President of Imperial College London. After a 4-minute commercial for Imperial, Gast is asked about the death of Stefan Grimm. Her reply doesn’t even mention Grimm. “professors are under a lot of pressure . . .”. Not a word of apology or explanation is offered. I find it hard to comprehend such a heartless approach to her employees.
1 May 2015
The Imperial students’ newspaper, Felix Online, carried a description of the internal report and the inquest: Review in response to Grimm’s death completed. Results criticised by external academics: “Imperial doesn’t get it.”, It’s pretty good..
I wonder what undergraduates feel about being taught by people who write letters like Martin Wilkins‘ did?
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
Utterly tragic consequences of running a University Department as a business, via @david_colquhoun. #UofABudgetModel http://t.co/Ql2AJcQqWR
— 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
Bastards “@david_colquhoun: Publish *and* perish at Imperial College: the last email of Stefan Grimm http://t.co/DcQQlfwf78 #bullying”
— John Canning (@johngcanning) December 1, 2014
@david_colquhoun thank you for publishing this. Tragic.
— Melanie Byng (@ThetisMercurio) December 1, 2014
Good grief. This is what happens when science is run like a business http://t.co/3eArX3pRPz (via @david_colquhoun)
— Stephan Neuhaus (@stephanneuhaus1) December 1, 2014
Having worked at Imperial as a PostDoc, I recognise the vile atmosphere portrayed here (via @david_colquhoun). http://t.co/7ogAekAcLR
— Michel Valstar (@MichelValstar) December 1, 2014
Haunting stuff. @david_colquhoun writes of a tragic death and potential case of bullying at #Imperial College London http://t.co/uicA2wPE7S
— Michael Head (@michaelghead) December 1, 2014
@Cesar_F1000 @david_colquhoun Not the kind of "life of the mind" that anyone would want. Can Academia ever be reformed?
— Eric Kansa (@ekansa) December 1, 2014
@david_colquhoun @AMCELL Thank you. This is like something out of Terminator: the rise of the (administrator) machines.
— Dawn Bazely (@dawnbazely) December 1, 2014
@david_colquhoun @timeshighered @ChrisParrTHE "review" by Director of HR? Wonder if they'll find any fault with HR processes?
— calloutloud (@blowthatwhistl1) December 2, 2014
@david_colquhoun @timeshighered @ChrisParrTHE Stefan Grimm case order up a lorry load of whitewash for delivery to @imperialcollege DofHR
— calloutloud (@blowthatwhistl1) December 2, 2014
Shame on my old Uni for this! @david_colquhoun Publish and perish at @imperialcollege: the death of Stefan Grimm http://t.co/l0LZf8u8BX
— Scott Edmunds (@SCEdmunds) December 2, 2014
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness. @imperialcollege chews up profs. http://t.co/8ibqkk9fjJ @david_colquhoun
— Robert Davidson (@bobbledavidson) December 2, 2014
Saddest blog post I've read for ages: about the pressure on high performing academics by @david_colquhoun http://t.co/gH95I1bMCa
— Mark Brandon (@icey_mark) December 2, 2014
This breaks my heart @david_colquhoun Publish *and* perish at Imperial College London: last email of Stefan Grimm http://t.co/mUsEiM6OJU
— Sylvia McLain (@girlinterruptin) December 2, 2014
"Not a university but a business": Publish AND perish | http://t.co/6aOU6j9CRS | Via @david_colquhoun | Tragic, shameful, urgent
— 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.