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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.

Other universities

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.

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

There can be no doubt that the situation for women has improved hugely since I started at UCL, 50 years ago. At that time women were not allowed in the senior common room. It’s improved even more since the 1930s (read about the attitude of the great statistician, Ronald Fisher, to Florence Nightinglale David).

Recently Williams & Ceci published data that suggest that young women no longer face barriers in job selection in the USA (though it will take 20 years before that feeds through to professor level). But no sooner than one was feeling optimistic, along comes Tim Hunt who caused a media storm by advocating male-only labs. I’ll say a bit about that case below.

First some very preliminary concrete proposals.

The job of emancipation is not yet completed. I’ve recently become a member of the Royal Society diversity committee, chaired by Uta Frith. That’s made me think more seriously about the evidence concerning the progress of women and of black and minority ethnic (BME) people in science, and what can be done about it. Here are some preliminary thoughts. They are my opinions, not those of the committee.

I suspect that much of the problem for women and BME results from over-competitiveness and perverse incentives that are imposed on researchers. That’s got progressively worse, and it affects men too. In fact it corrupts the entire scientific process.

One of the best writers on these topics is Peter Lawrence. He’s an eminent biologist who worked at the famous Lab for Molecular Biology in Cambridge, until he ‘retired’.

Here are three things by him that everyone should read.

PL

The politics of publication (Nature, 2003) [pdf]

The mismeasurement of science (Current Biology, 2007) [pdf]

The heart of research is sick (Lab Times, 2011) [pdf]

From Lawrence (2003)

"Listen. All over the world scientists are fretting. It is night in London and Deborah Dormouse is unable to sleep. She can’t decide whether, after four weeks of anxious waiting, it would be counterproductive to call a Nature editor about her manuscript. In the sunlight in Sydney, Wayne Wombat is furious that his student’s article was rejected by Science and is taking revenge on similar work he is reviewing for Cell. In San Diego, Melissa Mariposa reads that her article submitted to Current Biology will be reconsidered, but only if it is cut in half. Against her better judgement, she steels herself to throw out some key data and oversimplify the conclusions— her postdoc needs this journal on his CV or he will lose a point in the Spanish league, and that job in Madrid will go instead to Mar Maradona."

and

"It is we older, well-established scientists who have to act to change things. We should make these points on committees for grants and jobs, and should not be so desperate to push our papers into the leading journals. We cannot expect younger scientists to endanger their future by making sacrifices for the common good, at least not before we do."

From Lawrence (2007)

“The struggle to survive in modern science, the open and public nature of that competition, and the advantages bestowed on those who are prepared to show off and to exploit others have acted against modest and gentle people of all kinds — yet there is no evidence, presumption or likelihood that less pushy people are less creative.  As less aggressive people are predominantly women [14,15] it should be no surprise that, in spite of an increased proportion of women entering biomedical research as students, there has been little, if any, increase in the representation of women at the top [16]. Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them [17]. Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”

From Lawrence (2011).

"There’s a reward system for building up a large group, if you can, and it doesn’t really matter how many of your group fail, as long as one or two succeed. You can build your career on their success".

Part of this pressure comes from university rankings. They are statistically-illiterate and serve no useful purpose, apart from making money for their publishers and providing vice-chancellors with an excuse to bullying staff in the interests of institutional willy-waving.

And part of the pressure arises from the money that comes with the REF.  A recent survey gave rise to the comment

"Early career researchers overwhelmingly feel that the research excellence framework has created “a huge amount of pressure and anxiety, which impacts particularly on those at the bottom rung of the career ladder"

In fact the last REF was conducted quite sensibly (e.g. use of silly metrics was banned).  The problem was that universities didn’t believe that the rules would be followed.

For example, academics in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London were told (in 2007) they are expected to

“publish three papers per annum, at least one in a prestigious journal with an impact factor of at least five”. 

And last year a 51-year-old academic with a good publication record was told that unless he raised £200,000 in grants in the next year, he’d be fired.  There can be little doubt that this “performance management” contributed to his decision to commit suicide.  And Imperial did nothing to remedy the policy after an internal investigation.

Several other universities have policies that are equally brutal. For example, Warwick, Queen Mary College London and Kings College London

Crude financial targets for grant income should be condemned as defrauding the taxpayer (you are compelled to make your work as expensive as possible)  As usual, women and BME suffer disproportionately from such bullying.

What can be done about this in practice?

I feel that some firm recommendations will be useful. 

One thing that could be done is to make sure that all universities sign, and adhere to, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), and adhere to the Athena Swan charter

The Royal Society has already signed DORA, but, shockingly, only three universities in the UK have done so (Sussex, UCL and Manchester).

Another well-meaning initiative is The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. It’s written very much from the HR point of view and I’d argue that that’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.
For example it says

“3. Research managers should be required to participate in active performance management, including career development guidance”

That statement is meaningless without any definition of how performance management should be done. It’s quite clear that “performance management”, in the form of crude targets, was a large contributor to Stefan Grimm’s suicide

The Concordat places great emphasis in training programmes, but ignores the fact that it’s doubtful whether diversity training works, and it may even have bad effects.

The Concordat is essentially meaningless in its present form.

My proposals

I propose that all fellowships and grants should be awarded only to universities who have signed DORA and Athena Swan.

I have little faith that signing DORA, or the Concordat, will have much effect on the shop floor, but they do set a standard, and eventually, as with changes in the law, improvements in behaviour are effected.

But, as a check, It should be announced at the start that fellows and employees paid by grants will be asked directly whether or not these agreements have been honoured in practice.

Crude financial targets are imposed at one in six universities. Those who do that should be excluded from getting fellowships or grants, on the grounds that the process gives bad value to the funders (and taxpayer) and that it endangers objectivity.

Some thoughts in the Hunt affair

It’s now 46 years since I and Brian Woledge managed to get UCL’s senior common room, the Housman room, opened to women. That was 1969, and since then, I don’t think that I’ve heard any public statement that was so openly sexist as Tim Hunt’s now notorious speech in Korea.

Listen to Hunt, Connie St Louis and Jenny Rohn on the Today programme (10 June, 2015). sl50

On the Today Programme, Hunt himself said "What I said was quite accurately reported" and "I just wanted to be honest", so there’s no doubt that those are his views. He confirmed that the account that was first tweeted by Connie St Louis was accurate

Inevitably, there was a backlash from libertarians and conservatives. That was fuelled by a piece in today’s Observer, in which Hunt seems to regard himself as being victimised. My comment on the Observer piece sums up my views.

I was pretty shaken when I heard what Tim Hunt had said, all the more because I have recently become a member of the Royal Society’s diversity committee. When he talked about the incident on the Today programme on 10 June, it certainly didn’t sound like a joke to me. It seems that he carried on for more than 5 minutes in they same vein.

Everyone appreciates Hunt’s scientific work, but the views that he expressed about women are from the dark ages. It seemed to me, and to Dorothy Bishop, and to many others, that with views like that. Hunt should not play any part in selection or policy matters. The Royal Society moved with admirable speed to do that.

The views that were expressed are so totally incompatible with UCL’s values, so it was right that UCL too acted quickly. His job at UCL was an honorary one: he is retired and he was not deprived of his lab and his living, as some people suggested.

Although the initial reaction, from men as well as from women, was predictably angry, it very soon turned to humour, with the flood of #distractinglysexy tweets.

It would be a mistake to think that these actions were the work of PR people. They were thought to be just by everyone, female or male, who wants to improve diversity in science.

The episode is sad and disappointing. But the right things were done quickly.

Now Hunt can be left in peace to enjoy his retirement.

Look at it this way. If you were a young woman, applying for a fellowship in competition with men. what would you think if Tim Hunt were on the selection panel?

After all this fuss, we need to laugh.

Here is a clip from the BBC News Quiz, in which actor, Rebecca Front, gives her take on the affair.sl50

Follow-up

Some great videos soon followed Hunt’s comments. Try these.
Nobel Scientist Tim Hunt Sparks a #Distractinglysexy Campaign
(via Jennifer Raff)

This video has some clips from an earlier one, from Suzi Gage “Science it’s a girl thing”.

15 June 2015

An update on what happened from UCL. From my knowledge of what happened, this is not PR spin. It’s true.

16 June 2015

There is an interview with Tim Hunt in Lab Times that’s rather revealing. This interview was published in April 2014, more than a year before the Korean speech. Right up to the penultimate paragraph we agree on just about everything, from the virtue of small groups to the iniquity of impact factors. But then right at the end we read this.

In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?

Hunt:  I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.

This suggests to me that the outburst on 8th June reflected opinions that Hunt has had for a while.

There has been quite a lot of discussion of Hunt’s track record. These tweets suggest it may not be blameless.

19 June 2015

Yesterday I was asked by the letters editor of the Times, Andrew Riley, to write a letter in response to a half-witted, anonymous, Times leading article. I dropped everything, and sent it. It was neither acknowledged nor published. Here it is [download pdf].

One of the few good outcomes of the sad affair of Tim Hunt is that it has brought to light the backwoodsmen who are eager to defend his actions, and to condemn UCL.  The anonymous Times leader of 16 June was as good an example as any.
Here are seven relevant considerations.

  1. Honorary jobs have no employment contract, so holders of them are not employees in the normal sense of the term.  Rather, they are eminent people who agree to act as ambassadors for the university,
  2. Hunt’s remarks were not a joke –they were his genuine views. He has stated them before and he confirmed them on the Today programme,
  3. He’s entitled to hold these views but he’s quite sensible enough to see that UCL would be criticised harshly if he were to remain in his ambassadorial role so he relinquished it before UCL was able to talk to him.
  4. All you have to do to see the problems is to imagine yourself as a young women, applying for a grant or fellowship, in competition with men, knowing that Hunt was one of her judges.  Would your leader have been so eager to defend a young Muslim who advocated men only labs?  Or someone who advocated Jew-free labs? The principle is the same.
  5. Advocacy of all male labs is not only plain silly, it’s also illegal under the Equalities Act (2010). 
  6. UCL’s decision to accept Hunt’s offer to relinquish his role was not the result of a twitter lynch mob. The comments there rapidly became good humoured  If there is a witch hunt, it is by your leader writer and the Daily Mail, eager to defend the indefensible and to condemn UCL and the Royal Society
  7. It has been suggested to me that it would have been better if Hunt had been brought before a disciplinary committee, so due process would have been observed.  I can imagine nothing that would have been more cruel to a distinguished colleague than to put him through such a miserable ordeal.

Some quotations from this letter were used by Tom Whipple in an article about Richard Dawkins surprising (to me) emergence as an unreconstructed backwoodsman.

18 June 2015

Adam Rutherford’s excellent Radio 4 programme, Inside Science, had an episode “Women Scientists on Sexism in Science". The last speaker was Uta Frith (who is chair of the Royal Society’s diversity committee). Her contribution started at about 23 min.

Listen to Uta Frith’s contribution. sl30

" . . this over-competitiveness, and this incredible rush to publish fast, and publish in quantity rather than in quality, has been extremely detrimental for science, and it has been disproportionately bad, I think, for under-represented groups who don’t quite fit in to this over-competitive climate. So I am proposing something I like to call slow science . . . why is this necessary, to do this extreme measurement-driven, quantitative judgement of output, rather than looking at the actual quality"

That, I need hardly say, is music to my ears. Why not, for example, restrict the number of papers that an be submitted with fellowship applications to four (just as the REF did)?

21 June 2015

I’ve received a handful of letters, some worded in a quite extreme way, telling me I’m wrong. It’s no surprise that 100% of them are from men. Most are from more-or-less elderly men. A few are from senior men who run large groups. I have no way to tell whether their motive is a genuine wish to have freedom of speech at any price. Or whether their motives are less worthy: perhaps some of them are against anything that prevents postdocs working for 16 hours a day, for the glory of the boss. I just don’t know.

I’ve had far more letters saying that UCL did the right thing when it accepted Tim Hunt’s offer to resign from his non job at UCL. These letters are predominantly from young people, men as well as women. Almost all of them ask not to be identified in public. They are, unsurprisingly, scared to argue with the eight Nobel prizewinners who have deplored UCL’s action (without bothering to ascertain the facts). The fact that they are scared to speak out is hardly surprising. It’s part of the problem.

What you can do, if you don’t want to put your head above the public parapet. is simply to email the top people at UCL, in private. to express your support. All these email addresses are open to the public in UCL’s admirably open email directory.

Michael Arthur (provost): michael.arthur@ucl.ac.uk

David Price (vice-provost research): d.price@ucl.ac.uk

Geraint Rees (Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences): g.rees@ucl.ac.uk

All these people have an excellent record on women in science, as illustrated by the response to Daily Mail’s appalling behaviour towards UCL astrophysicist, Hiranya Pereis.

26 June 2015

The sad matter of Tim Hunt is over, at last. The provost of UCL, Michael Arthur has now made a statement himself. Provost’s View: Women in Science is an excellent reiteration of UCL’s principles.

By way of celebration, here is the picture of the quad, taken on 23 March, 2003. It was the start of the second great march to try to stop the war in Iraq. I use it to introduce talks, as a reminder that there are more serious consequences of believing things that aren’t true than a handful of people taking sugar pills.

ucl-quad-200303-500.jpg

11 October 2015

In which I agree with Mary Collins

Long after this unpleasant row died down, it was brought back to life yesterday when I heard that Colin Blakemore had resigned as honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), on the grounds that that organisation had not been sufficiently hard on Connie St Louis, whose tweet initiated the whole affair. I’m not a member of the ABSW and I have never met St Louis, but I know Blakemore well and like him. Nevertheless it seems to me to be quite disproportionate for a famous elderly white man to take such dramatic headline-grabbing action because a young black women had exaggerated bits of her CV. Of course she shouldn’t have done that, but it everyone were punished so severely for "burnishing" their CV there would be a large number of people in trouble.

Blakemore’s own statement also suggested that her reporting was inaccurate (though it appears that he didn’t submitted a complaint to ABSW). As I have said above, I don’t think that this is true to any important extent. The gist of it was said was verified by others, and, most importantly, Hunt himself said "What I said was quite accurately reported" and "I just wanted to be honest". As far as I know, he hasn’t said anything since that has contradicted that view, which he gave straight after the event. The only change that I know of is that the words that were quoted turned out to have been followed by "Now, seriously", which can be interpreted as meaning that the sexist comments were intended as a joke. If it were not for earlier comments along the same lines, that might have been an excuse.

Yesterday, on twitter, I was asked by Mary Collins, Hunt’s wife, whether I thought he was misogynist. I said no and I don’t believe that it is. It’s true that I had used that word in a single tweet, long since deleted, and that was wrong. I suspect that I felt at the time that it sounded like a less harsh word than sexist, but it was the wrong word and I apologised for using it.

So do I believe that Tim Hunt is sexist? No I don’t. But his remarks both in Korea and earlier were undoubtedly sexist. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that, as a person, he suffers from ingrained sexism. He’s too nice for that. My interpretation is that (a) he’s so obsessive about his work that he has little time to think about political matters, and (b) he’s naive about the public image that he presents, and about how people will react to them. That’s a combination that I’ve seen before among some very eminent scientists.

In fact I find myself in almost complete agreement with Mary Collins, Hunt’s wife, when she said (I quote the Observer)

“And he is certainly not an old dinosaur. He just says silly things now and again.” “Collins clutches her head as Hunt talks. “It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say,” she says. “You can see why it could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim. But really it was just part of his upbringing. He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s.”

Nevertheless, I think it’s unreasonable to think that comments such as those made in Korea (and earlier) would not have consequences, "naive" or not, "joke" or not, "upbringing" or not,

It’s really not hard to see why there were consequences. All you have to do is to imagine yourself as a woman, applying for a grant or fellowship, and realising that you’d be judged by Hunt. And if you think that the reaction was too harsh, imagine the same words being spoken with "blacks", or "Jews" substituted for "women". Of course I’m not suggesting for a moment that he’d have done this, but if anybody did, I doubt whether many people would have thought it was a good joke.

9 November 2015

An impressively detailed account of the Hunt affair has appeared. The gist can be inferred from the title: "Saving Tim Hunt
The campaign to exonerate Tim Hunt for his sexist remarks in Seoul is built on myths, misinformation, and spin
". It was written by Dan Waddell (@danwaddell) and Paula Higgins (@justamusicprof). It is long and it’s impressively researched. it’s revealing to see the bits that Louise Mensch omitted from her quotations. I can’t disagree with its conclusion.

"In the end, the parable of Tim Hunt is indeed a simple one. He said something casually sexist, stupid and inappropriate which offended many of his audience. He then confirmed he said what he was reported to have said and apologised twice. The matter should have stopped there. Instead a concerted effort to save his name — which was not disgraced, nor his reputation as a scientist jeopardized — has rewritten history. Science is about truth. As this article has shown, we have seen very little of it from Hunt’s apologists — merely evasions, half-truths, distortions, errors and outright falsehoods.

"

Jump to follow-up

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.

Ditto

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.

Additional recommendation

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

Follow-up

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.

Listen to the interview  sl

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?

Jump to follow-up

The University of Warwick seems determined to wrest the title of worst employer from Imperial College London and Queen Mary College London. In little over a year, Warwick has had four lots of disastrous publicity, all self-inflicted.

logo

First came the affair of Thomas Docherty.

Thomas Docherty

Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Thomas Docherty was suspended in January 2014 by Warwick because of "inappropriate sighing", "making ironic comments" and "projecting negative body language". Not only was Docherty punished, but also his students.

"As well as being banned from campus, from the library, and from email contact with his colleagues, Docherty was prohibited from supervising his graduate students and from writing references. Indiscriminate, disproportionate, and unjust measures against the professor were also deeply unfair to his students."

Ludicrously, rather than brushing the matter aside, senior management at Warwick hired corporate lawyers to argue that his behaviour was grounds for dismissal.

That cost the university at least £43,000.

The story appeared in every UK newspaper and rapidly spread abroad. It must have been the most ham-fisted bit of PR ever. But rather than firing the HR department, The University of Warwick let the matter fester for a full nine months before reinstating Docherty in September 2014.

The university managed to get the worst possible outcome. The suspension provoked world-wide derision and in the end they admitted they’d been wrong.  Jeremy Treglown, a professor emeritus of Warwick (and former editor of The Times Literary Supplement) described the episode as being like “something out of Kafka”.

And guess what, nobody was blamed and nobody resigned.

The firing people of doing cheap research

Warwick has followed the bad example set by Queen Mary College London, Kings College London and Imperial College London , If you don’t average an external grant income of at least £75,000 a year over the past four years, you job is at risk. Apart from its cruelty, the taxpayer is likely to take a dim view of academics being compelled to make research as expensive as possible. Some people need no more than a paper and pencil to do brilliant work. If you are one of them, don’t go to any of these universities.

It’s simply bad management. They shouldn’t have taken on so many people if they can’t pay the bills. Many universities took on extra staff in order to cheat on the REF. Now they have to cast some aside like worn-out old boots..

The tone of voice

Warwick University has very recently issued a document "Warwick tone of voice: Full guidelines. March 2015". It’s a sign of their ham-fisted management style that it wasn’t even hidden behind a password. They seem to be proud of it. Of course it provoked a storm of hilarity on social media. Documents like that are designed to instruct people not to give truthful opinions but to act as advertising agents for their university. The actual effect is, of course, exactly the opposite. They reduce the respect for the institution that issues such documents.

Here are some quotations (try not to laugh -you might get fired).

"What is tone of voice and why do we need a ‘Warwick’ tone of voice?
The tone of our language defines the way people respond to us. By writing in a tone that’s true to our brand, we can express what it is that makes University of Warwick unique."

"Our brand: defined by possibility

What is it that makes us unique? We’re a university with modern values and a formidable record of academic and commercial achievement — but not the only one. So what sets us apart?

The difference lies in our approach to everything we do. Warwick is a place that fundamentally rejects the notion of obstacles — a place where the starting point is always ‘anything is possible’. "

Then comes the common thread. It’s all to do with rankings.

“What if we raised our research profile to even higher levels of international excellence? Then we could be ranked as one of the world’s top fifty universities."

The people who sell university rankings (and the REF) have much to answer for,

There’s a good post about this fiasco, from people whose job is branding. "How not to write guidelines".

Outsourcing teaching

As if all this were not enough, on April 5th 2015, we heard that "Warwick Uni to outsource hourly paid academics to subsidiary". Universities already rely totally on people on people on short-term contracts. Most research is done by PhD students and post-doctoral students on three (or sometimes five) year contracts. They are supervised (not always very well) by people who spend most of their time writing grant applications. Science must be one of the most insecure jobs going.

Increasingly we are seeing casualisation of academics. A three year contract looks like luxury compared with being hired by the hour. It’s rapidly approaching zero-hours contracts for PhDs. In fact it’s reported that people hired by TeachHigher won’t even have a contract: "staff hired under TeachHigher will be working explicitly not on a contract, but rather, an ‘agreement’ ".

The organisation behind this is called TeachHigher. And guess who owns it? The University of Warwick. It is a subsidiary of the Warwick Employment Group which already runs several other employment agencies, including Unitemps which deals with cleaners, security and catering staff.

The university claims that it isn’t "outsourcing" because TeachHigher is part of the university. For now, anyway. It’s reported that "The university plans to turn the project into a commercial franchise, similar to another subsidiary used to pay cleaners and catering staff, it can sell to other institutions."

The Warwick students’ newspaper "spoke to a PhD student who was fired last year from a teaching job with Unitemps after participating in strike action, who felt one of the aims of creating TeachHigher may “to prevent collective action from taking place.”" 

Bringing the university into disrepute is something for which you can be fired. The vice-chancellor, Nigel Thrift, has allowed Warwick to become a laughing stock four times in a single year. Perhaps it is time that the chair of Council, George Cox, did something about it?

Universities don’t have to be run like that. UCL isn’t, for one.

Follow-up

9 April 2015 It seems that TeachHigher was proposing to pay a lecturer £5 per hour. This may not be accurate but it’s certainly caused a stir.

Laurie Taylor, ever-topical, was on the Docherty case in Times Higher Education.

Riga, Riga, roses

I’ve nothing against Latvia per se, but I can’t in all honesty see any real parallels between a university in such a faraway and somewhat desolate place as Riga and our own delightful campus.”

That was how Jamie Targett, our Director of Corporate Affairs, responded to the news that the European Court of Human Rights had found that a professor at Riga Stradiņš University had been unfairly sacked for criticising senior management. University staff, the court ruled, must be free to criticise management without fear of dismissal or disciplinary action.

Targett “thoroughly rejected” the suggestion from our reporter Keith Ponting (30) that there might be “a parallel” between what happened at Riga and our own university’s decision to ban Professor Busby of our English Department from campus for nine months for a disciplinary offence.

This, insisted Targett, was a “wholly inappropriate parallel”. For whereas the Latvian professor had been disciplined for speaking out against “alleged nepotism, plagiarism, corruption and mismanagement” in his department, Professor Busby had been banned from campus and from contact with students and colleagues for nine months for the “far more heinous offence” of “sighing” during an appointments interview.

Targett said he “trusted that any fair-minded person, whether from Latvia or indeed the Outer Caucasus, would be able to see the essential difference in the scale of offence”.

10 April 2015

The London Review of Books has a rather similar piece, Mind Yout Tone, by Glen Newey.

"It’s tough to pick winners amid the textureless blather that has lately seeped from campus PR outfits".

"In a keen field, though, it’s Warwick’s drill-sheet that takes the jammie dodger".

17 April 2015

Anyone would have thought that Laurie Taylor had read this post. His inimitable Poppletonian column this week was entirely devoted to Warwick.

Nothing to laugh about!

16 APRIL 2015 | BY LAURIE TAYLOR

Our Director of Corporate Affairs, Jamie Targett, has roundly criticised all those members of the Poppleton academic staff who have responded to the new University of Warwick “Tone of Voice” guidelines with what he described as “wholly inappropriate sniggering”.

Targett said that he saw “nothing at all funny” in Warwick’s new insistence that its staff should always apply the “What if” linguistic principle in all their communications.

He particularly praised the manner in which the application of the What if principle helped to make communications optimistic, leaving “the reader to feel that you’re there to help them”. So instead of writing “This is only for”, Warwick staff under the influence of the What if principle would write “This is for everyone who”.

But there were many other advantages that could be derived from consistent application of What if. It also inclined writers to be “proactive”. So instead of writing “Your application was received”, Warwick staff imbued with the What if ethic would always write “We’ve read your application”.

Targett said that he also failed to find any humour whatsoever in the further What if insistence that academic staff should always avoid using such tentative words as “possibly”, “hopefully” or “maybe”. So, under the What if linguistic principle, staff would never write “We hope to become a top 50 world-ranked university” but always “Our aim is to become a top 50 world-ranked university”.

In what was being described as “an unexpected move”, Targett received support for his views on the What if principle from Mr Ted Odgers of our Department of Media and Cultural Studies, who thought that the principle made “particularly good sense” in the Warwick context. He went so far as to provide the following example of its application:

“What if the University of Warwick had not recently banned an academic from its campus for nothing more serious than sighing, projecting negative body language and making ironic comments when interviewing candidates for a job? And What if this ban had not been complemented with a ban on the said academic contacting his own undergraduates and tutoring his own PhD students and speaking to his former colleagues? And What if the whole case against the said academic had not then been pursued with the use of a team of high-powered barristers costing the university at least £43,000?”

If all these What ifs had been met, then, added Mr Odgers, Warwick might possibly, hopefully or maybe have managed to retain its former position as an institution that respected the principles of academic freedom.

Targett told The Poppletonian that while he appreciated Mr Odgers’ application of the What if principle, he felt that it did not “at some points” fully capture the essence of its guidelines.

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

Nobody could have been more surprised than I when I found myself nominated as an academic role model at UCL. I had to answer a few questions. It is not obvious to me what the object of the stunt is, but the person who asked me to do it seemed to find the answers amusing, so I’ll reproduce here what I said. I apologise for the temporary lapse into narcissism.

The final version has now been printed [download a copy]. Sadly the printed edition was “corrected” by someone who replaced “whom I asked to submit the first theoretical paper by Hawkes and me to the Royal Society” (as written below), with “paper by Hawkes and I”. Aaargh.

DC 2013

Your nomination – Why you were nominated as an Academic Role Model?

"David Colquhoun has made major contributions to our understanding of how ion channels (proteins which allow charged ions to pass across cell membranes) function to mediate electrical signalling in nerve and muscle cells. This work elegantly combines experimental and theoretical aspects, and resulted in David being made a Fellow of the Royal Society. David Colquhoun played a key role in resisting the notion that UCL should merge with Imperial College in 2002, by running a website opposed to the merger. He thus facilitated the continued existence of an independent UCL. He is also well-known for his principled opposition to therapies that are not based on scientific evidence, and for his blog which comments on this issue as well as on university bureaucracy and politics."

Role models’ questions

1.  What is your response to being nominated?

Astounded.

We are interested in giving people a very brief ‘snapshot’ description of their career trajectory, to help a broad range of people see how you got to where you are:

2.   What has your career path been?

My first job (in 1950s) was as an apprentice pharmacist in Timothy Whites & Taylors (Homeopathic Chemists) in Grange Road, Birkenhead.  You can’t get a more humble start than that.  But it got me interested in drugs, and thanks to my schoolmaster father, I got to the University of Leeds. 

pa 1955
My father (1907 – 2001), in 1955

One of the courses involved some statistics, and that interested me.  I think I made a semi-conscious decision that it would be sensible to be good at something that others were bad at, so I learned quite a lot of statistics and mathematics. I recall buying a Methuen’s Monograph on Determinants and Matrices in my final year, and, with the help of an Argentinian PhD student in physical chemistry (not my lecturers) I began to make sense of it. 

aitken

I purposely went into my final viva with it sticking out of my pocket. The examiner was Walter Perry, then professor of Pharmacology in Edinburgh (he later did a great job setting up the Open University).  That’s how I came to be a PhD student in Edinburgh. 

Although Perry was one of my supervisors, the only time I saw him was when he came into my lab between committee meetings for a cigarette.  But he did make me an honorary lecturer so I could join the Staff Club, where I made many friends, including a young physics lecturer called Peter Higgs. The  staff club exists no longer, having been destroyed in one of those acts of short-sighted academic vandalism that vice-chancellors seem so fond of.

The great university expansion in the 1960s made it easy to get a job.  The most famous pharmacology department in the world was at UCL so I asked someone to introduce me to its then head, Heinz Schild, and asked him if he had a job.  While interned during WW2 he had written a paper on the statistics of biological assay and wanted someone to teach it to students, so I got a job (in 1964), and have been at UCL ever since apart from 9 years.  Between 1964 and 1970 I published little, but learned a great deal by writing a textbook on statistics.

That sort of statistics is now thought too difficult for undergraduates, and the famous department that attracted me was itself destroyed in another act of academic vandalism, in 2007.

I have spent my life doing things that I enjoy.  Such success as I’ve had, I attribute to a liking for spending time with people cleverer than I am, and wasting time drinking coffee.  I found a very clever statistician, Alan Hawkes, in the Housman Room in the late 1960s, and we began to collaborate on the theory of single ion channel analysis in a series of papers that still isn’t quite finished.  He did the hard mathematics, but I knew enough about it to write it up in a more or less comprehensible form and to write computer programs to evaluate the algebra.  When I got stuck, I would often ask Hyman Kestelman (co-author of the famous mathematics textbook, Massie & Kestelman) to explain, usually in what was then the Joint Staff Common Room at lunch time (it is now the Haldane room, the common room having been confiscated by unenlightened management).  Before leaving for the USA in 1970, I, in league with the then professor of French, Brian Woledge, eventually got through a motion that allowed women into the Housman room.

I’d also talk as much as I could to Bernard Katz, whom I asked to submit the first theoretical paper by Hawkes and me to the Royal Society. His comments on the first draft led to the published version making a prediction about single ion channel behaviour before channels could be observed. 

The next step was sheer luck.  As this was going on, two young Germans, Neher & Sakmann, succeeded in observing the tiny currents that flow through single ion channel molecules, so it became possible to test the theory.  In series of visits to Göttingen, Sakmann and I did experiments late into the night.  Neher & Sakmann got a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 1991, and I expect I benefitted from a bit of reflected glory

The work that I have done is nothing if not basic.  It doesn’t fit in with the current vogue for translational research (most of which will fail), although I would regard it as laying the basis for rational drug design. My only regret is that rational drug design has proved to be so difficult that it won’t be achieved in my lifetime (please don’t believe the hype).

We’d also like you to take a slightly more personal view:

3.  What have been the highs (and the lows?) of your career so far?

The highs have been the chance to work with brilliant people and write a handful of papers that have a chance of having a lasting influence.  Because I have been able to take my time on those projects there haven’t been too many lows, apart from observing the continuous loss of academic integrity caused by the intense pressure to publish or perish, and the progressive decline in collegiality in universities caused by that pressure combined with the rise in power of managerialism.  Luckily the advent of blogs has allowed me to do a little about that. 

I’m saddened by the fact that the innumeracy of biologists that I noticed as an undergraduate has not really improved at all (though I don’t believe it is worse).  Most biologists still have difficulty with even the simplest equations.  Worse still, they don’t know enough maths to communicate their problem to a mathematician, so only too often one sees collaborations with mathematicians produce useless results.

The only real failure I’ve had was when, in a fit of vanity, I applied for the chair of Pharmacology in Oxford, in 1984, and failed to get it.  But in retrospect that was really a success too.  I would have hated the flummery of Oxford, and as head of department (an increasingly unattractive job) I would have spent my time on pushing paper, not ion channels.  In retrospect, it was a lucky escape.  UCL is my sort of place (most of the time).

We would like to hear what our role models have to say about the next generation:

4.  What advice would you give to people finishing off their PhD?  

My career course would be almost impossible now.  In fact it is very likely that I would have been fired before I got going in the present climate.  There were quite long periods when I didn’t publish much.  I was learning the tools of my trade, both mathematical and experimental.  Now there is no time to do that.  You are under pressure to publish a paper a week (for the glory of your PI and your university) and probably rarely find time to leave the lab to talk to inspiring people. If you are given any courses they’ll probably be in some inane HR nonsense, not in algebra.  That is one reason we started our summer workshop, though bizarrely that has now been dropped by the graduate school in favour of Advanced Powerpoint.

The plight of recent PhDs is dire.  Too many are taken on (for the benefit of the university, not of the student) and there aren’t many academic jobs.  If you want to stay in academia, all I can suggest is that you get good at doing something that other people can’t do, and to resist the pressure to publish dozens of trivial papers. 

Try to maintain some academic integrity despite the many pressures to do the opposite that are imposed on you by your elders (but not always betters).  That may or may not be enough to get you the job that you want, but at least you’ll be able to hold your head high. 

Finally, we want to give a balanced impression of our role models because many were nominated for their ability to motivate others, and to balance life and work:

5.  How do you keep motivated?

Work-life balance is much talked about by HR, though they are one of the reasons why it is now almost impossible, In the past it wasn’t a great problem.  I’m fascinated by the problems that I’m trying to puzzle out.  I’ve had periods of a year or two when things haven’t gone well and I’ve felt as though I was a failure, but luckily they haven’t lasted too long, and they occurred in a time before some idiotic performance manager would harass you for failing to publish for a year or two.  The climate of “performance management” is doing a lot to kill innovation and creativity.

6.  What do you do when are not working in SLMS?                                                               

I’ve had various phases. For a while I carried on boxing (which had been compulsory at school). When I was first at UCL in 1964 I bought a 21 foot sloop (and as a consequence could barely afford to eat), and in 1970 (at Yale) I learned to fly. I had a lot of fun sailing right up to the early 1980s, when I found I could not afford a son as well as a boat. That was when running came into fashion and that could be done for the price of a pair of shoes.  I did marathons and half marathons for fun (the London in 1988 was great fun).  And that was supplanted by walking country trails in the early 2000s.  

There is never a clear division between work and play, especially with algebra. You can continue to struggle with a derivation on a boat, or even get a new angle on it while running.  That, of course, is why the transparency review is such total nonsense.

The main cause of stress has never been work for me. Stress comes mainly from the imposition of dim-witted managerialism and incompetent HR policies.  And that has become progressively worse.  I doubt that if I were a young academic now I’d have the time to spend the weekend sailing.

I’m not sure whether the blogging that has taken up something like half my time since my nominal retirement in 2004 counts as work or not.  It certainly depends on things that I have learned in my academic work.  And it’s fun to have effects in the real world after a life spent on problems that many would regard as esoteric. 

If you want a hobby that costs very little, and allows you to say what you want, start a blog.

Follow-up

It is almost six months now since I posted Quackery creeps into good universities too -but through Human Resources. One example given there was the University of Leicester. This is an excellent university.  It does first class research and it was the alma mater of the incomparable David Attenborough who has done more than anyone to show us the true beauty and wonder of the natural world.

Nevertheless, their well-meaning occupational health department had a section about “complementary therapies” that contained a lot of statements that were demonstrably untrue. They even recommended the utterly outrageous SCENAR device. So I pointed this out to them, and I had a quick and sympathetic response from their HR director.

But three months later, nothing had changed. Every now and then, I’d send a polite reminder, but it seemed the occupational health staff were very wedded to their quackery.   The last reminder went on 6th February, but this time I copied it to Leicester’s vice-chancellor.  This time it worked. There is still a link to Complementary Therapies on the Wellbeing site, but if you click on it, this is what you see.

Complementary therapies

Some employees may have an interest in complementary therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, Indian head massage, Reiki, sports & remedial massage, reflexology and hypnotherapy. If you have an interest in any of these, Staff Counselling can happily provide details of practitioners in the local area. Some of these practitioners offer discounts from their normal rates for University of Leicester staff.

However, the University of Leicester cannot vouch for, or recommend any of these therapies to staff as being effective. We would urge members of staff who believe that such therapies might be effective to contact their GP prior to undertaking any of them. Further, the University of Leicester shall not be liable for any damage of any kind arising out of or related to the services of any complementary therapists or treatments listed here.

If you would like further information, please contact Chris Wilson at: staffcounsel&welfare@le.ac.uk or telephone 1702.

That’s not bad. Pity it doesn’t say alternative, rather than complementary though.   Euphemisms aren’t really helpful.

In fact I have a bit of a problem with “wellbeing” too. It is a harmless word that has been highjacked so that its use now makes one think of mud baths provided by expensive hotels for their rich and gullible customers.

Leicester’s HR director wrote

“Unfortunately an instruction I had given previously had not been fully complied with.  I spoke to the manager of the Staff Counselling team on Friday and gave clear instructions as to the content of this site.  I had been assured that the offending information had been removed, but found that it had not.

I have now checked the site for myself and can say, with confidence, that all claims for the efficacy of complimentary [sic] therapies have been removed including SCENAR.”

The similarity between quack treatments and religion is intriguing.  It seems that the devotion of the occupational health people to their baloney was so great that they wouldn’t take it down even when told to do so.  The more irrational the belief, the greater the fervour with which it is defended,

What’s the lesson from this minor saga?  It seems that most VCs and many HR people are too sensible to believe in alternative baloney, but that they are a bit too ready to tolerate it, perhaps on grounds of political correctness.  Tolerance is a virtue, but lies about health are not in the least virtuous. If you point out that people are saying things for which there isn’t the slightest evidence, they will often respond.  Just be prepared to send a few reminders.

It may also be useful to point out that some of the claims made are almost certainly illegal.  Even people who care little about evidence of efficacy are impressed by the idea that they might be prosecuted by Trading Standards officers.

Who needs mystical medicine when you have real wonders like these.

(Click the google video logo for a bigger version)

Or try the pitcher plant video, or the Bird of paradise, or the Bower Bird, or the giant Amazon lilies.

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

We know all about the sixteen or so universities that run “BSc” degrees in hokum. They are all “post-1992” universities, which used to be polytechnics. That is one reason why it saddens me to see them destroying their own attempts to achieve parity with older universities by running courses that I would regard as plain dishonest.

Older universities do not run degree courses in such nonsense. Academics (insofar as they still have any influence) certainly would not put up with it if they tried. But nevertheless you can find quackery in some of the most respected universities, and it gets there not via academics but (guess what) via Human Resources.  It creeps in through two routes.  One is the “training courses” that research staff now have to do (the “Roberts agenda”).  The other route is through occupational health services.

Quackery in training courses

It isn’t easy to find out what happens elsewhere, but I was certainly surprised to find out that UCL’s own HR department was offering a course that promised to teach you the “core principles” of Brain Gym and  Neurolinguistic Programming, both totally discredited bits of psycho-babble, more appropriate to the lifestyle section of a downmarket.women’s magazine than a university.  I gather that HR’s reaction after I brought this to light was not to ask what was wrong with it, but just to get angry.

In a spirit of collegiality I offered to run a transferable skills course myself.  I even offered to do it for nothing (rather than the rumoured £700 per day charged by the life style consultants).  I proposed a course in ‘How to read critically’ (subtitle ‘How to detect bullshit’).  This seems to me to be the ultimate transferable skill. Bullshit occurs in every walk of life. My proposal was moderately worded and perfectly serious.

Guess what?  Despite several reminders, I have never had any response to my suggestion.  Well, I suppose that HR people now regard themselves as senior to mere professors and there is really no need to reply to their
letters.

Quackery in occupational health. Leicester sets a good example

If you work at a university, why not search the university’s web site for “complementary medicice” or complementary therapies”. If it is a real university, you won’t find any degrees in homeopathy, or in amethysts
that emit high yin energy
.  But some quite surprising places are found to be recommending magic medicine through their Occupational Health service, which usually seems to be part of HR.  In fact at one time even UCL was doing it, but no soon had somebody sent me the link than it disappeared. As a matter of historical record, you can see it here (it had all the usual junk, as well as harmless stuff like yoga and pilates).

While looking for something else I stumbled recently some other cases.  One was at the University of Leicester, a very good university (and alma mater to the great David Attenborough who must have done more to point out the beauty of science than just about anyone).  But we find on their staff wellbeing site, alongside some perfectly sensible stuff, a link to complementary therapies.

The list of ‘therapies’ includes not only the usual placebos, acupuncture, reiki, reflexology, but, even more exotically, a fraudulent Russian device called SCENAR therapy. They have a nice leaflet that explains all these things in words that run the whole gamut from meaningless gobbledygook to plain wrong.  Here are some examples from the leaflet.

Reflexology

“In the feet, there are reflex areas corresponding to all the parts of the body and these areas are arranged in such a way as to form a map of the body in the feet”

Reflexology has been shown to be effective for:

  • Back Pain
  • Migraine
  • Infertility
  • Arthritis

Well no, there are no such areas in your feet. That is sheer imagination.  And reflexology has not “been shown to be effective” for any of those conditions.  These claims for therapeutic efficacy are not only lies.  They are also illegal.

Reiki

Each hand position is held for a few minutes, and during this time healing energy will flow into you, balancing your energy system, releasing stress, soothing pain, and promoting your body’s natural ability to heal itself.”

This is sheer idiotic mumbo-jumbo. The “flow of healing energy” is totally imaginary. Such talk is offensive to anyone with half a brain. Insofar as they claim to heal anything, it is also illegal.  The comes SCENAR.

What is SCENAR?

SCENAR is an acronym for Self Controlled Energo- Neuro Adaptive Regulator. It is a reflex biofeedback device which when used by a qualified practitioner, can help to alleviate acute and chronic pain. It is licensed in the UK for pain relief but experience has shown that it is helpful in a wide variety of conditions.”

This is even more seriously nuts than the others.  The term “licensed” means merely that it is electrically safe. It certainly does not mean that it works.  Pubmed shows only three publications about the SCENAR device, all in Russian,

One sales site (apparently Russian) makes the following modest claim.

“A prime goal of the Russian Space Program was to provide space travelers with a portable  medical device that would become their “universal medical assistant” in space. So from the beginning, the SCENAR was designed to replace an entire medical hospital, with all its staff, diagnostic and treatment facilities, even the pharmacy. A universal, non-invasive, portable regulator of body functions (among other things) was envisaged.”

The SCENAR device (right) looks like a TV remote control (perhaps it IS a TV remote control -we aren’t anywhere told in comprehensible terms what’s in the box.  The Russian site sells also the rather baffling accessory on the right. The mind boggles.

SCENAR device

Remote rectal-vaginal electrode for SCENAR

How does this rubbish get onto the web site of a good university?

I presume that it is just another sign of what happens when universities come to be run by non-academics.  No doubt the occupational health people are well meaning and kind, but just scientifically illiterate. What about the HR person in charge of them?  They are not known for scientific literacy either (which would not matter if they stuck to their job).  But perhaps they just didn’t notice.  There is only one way to find out. Ask.  So I sent this letter.on 10th September.

Hello

I am a pharmacologist and I have a side interest in public understanding of science, alternative medicine.and medical fraud

I was quite surprised when Google led me unexpectedly to your complementary therapies page at http://www.le.ac.uk/staffwellbeing/complementary_therapy.html

There is, sad to say, a great deal of information on these pages that is simply not true. For example it has NOT been shown that reflexology has been shown to be effective in any of the conditions which you list, as far as I know
(please send me references if you think I’m wrong) “Reflexology has been shown to be effective for: Back Pain Migraine Infertility Arthritis Sleep disorders Hormonal imbalances Sports injuries Digestive disorders Stress-related condition ”

To take only one more example from this page, the SCENAR device is an even more extreme example. It is well known to be fraudulent. and has been investigated by the Washington State Attorney General.

This sort of thing is not what one would expect from a very respectable university, and it must be a great embarrassment to your excellent medical scientists.

Apart from the many scientific inaccuracies (which greatly impede the efforts of those of us who try to improve public understanding of science), you are, I hope, aware that there is a legal aspect.

Since May this year, new regulations have made it illegal to make claims for health benefits if evidence cannot be produced to show that the claims are justified.  I would like to put it to you that many of the claims made on this page are not only immoral, but also illegal.

I wondered whether you , or your HR department, would like to make any comments

Best regards

David Colquhoun


I got an immediate and very sympathetic response from the Director of HR and a week later, on17th September, he wrote

“Hi David,

I have discussed the matter with my manager of Staff Counselling and Welfare and have agreed that it is probably safest that we remove the references to ‘complimentary’[sic] therapies from the site entirely.

Thank you for your helpful input and the recommendations for reading matter.”

So there is a lesson here.  If you find this sort or stuff on your own institution’s web site, all that may be needed is a simple letter that points out what nonsense it is.  Admittedly the HR man seemed rather more worried about whether the claims were illegal than whether they were true, but either way, it worked.

Only one little snag.  As of 6 October the pages still have not been removed.

On the assumption that they eventually will be removed, I have kept copies of the Wellbeing page, of the Complementary Therapies page, and of the ‘explanatory leaflet’. They stand as part of a historical record that
shows, once again, what can happen when scientific matters get into the hands of HR. Fortunately Leicester University has an HR director who is willing to listen to advice.

Follow-up

Something seems to have gone seriously wrong. Despite the rapid response, virtually all the nonsense is still there on 13th October. It seems not to be so simple after all.

And despite several reminders, the advertisement for SCENAR ‘therapy’ is still on  the University web site on December 14th.  I know that no decision by HR can be made with fewer than 25 meetings and an awayday in Majorca, but this is getting ridiculous.