In September, Stefan Grimm, professor of toxicology at Imperial College, was found dead in Northwood, Middlesex. The cause of his death has not been determined, but it appears to be related to his job at his university. Prior to his death, he complained about being placed under undue pressure from university administration to raise more grant money. David Calhoun’s blog posted a delayed email from his account sent to his colleagues a month after death, which we reproduce at the bottom.
A few comments -
1. It is unclear whether the email is authentic, but if so, it shows quite a reflection of change in academic culture in recent years. For example, his ‘boss’ (a term that had little significance in scientific world in not too distant time) asked him to raise specific amount of funding and not to do good science or invent something or write excellent papers. What if he comes up with a clever way to do a million dollar experiment for $100? He is out of his job.
2. There are other indications of extreme deterioration of culture at the Imperial College. For example, some of the glassdoor entries are truly horrific - ‘horrible environment, bullying, bullies supported by senior management. if it happens to you get out fast…….HR not useful - don’t even answer emails’. That is really encouraging !
3. In fact, there are more direct evidences than glassdoor of Imperial’s deterioration. Look no further than their brain-dead evaluation method based on multiplying and adding up journal impact factors and author position, which reminds us of weighing cattle or processing other commodities.
IMPERIALS PUBLICATION SCORE
The publication score that appears alongside that of your colleagues is calculated thus.
Multiply the impact factor of the journal by the author position weight, and divide by the number of authors. The author position weight is 5 for the first and last author, 3 for the second author, 2 for the third author and 1 for any other position.
The method is guaranteed to remove the best and the worst from the pool and nurture the mediocre. The following blog post has detailed criticism, which we fully agree with -
4. Going forward, ‘unexplained’ deaths will be more frequent in academic lands in USA and UK, and people will get desensitized just like they have done with drone killing or college/school/mall/office shooting or gun-toting cops murdering ordinary people. Debt is the bigger underlying theme everywhere, and a debt-ridden society tends to be less generous and more violent until it completely blows up from inside.
You may have already heard about the tragic death of Professor Stefan Grimm a former member of the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College. He died suddenly and unexpectedly in early October. As yet there is no report about the cause of his death. Some two weeks later a delayed email from him was received by many of the senior staff of the medical school, and other researchers worldwide. It has been forwarded to me by one of my research collaborators. From my reading of it I believe that Stefan wanted it circulated as widely as possible and for that reason I am sending it to you. It is appended below.
This email represents just one side of an acrimonious dispute, but it may be indicative of more deep seated problems.
Begin forwarded message:
From: Stefan Grimm
Date: 21 October 2014 23:41:03 BST
Subject: How Professors are treated at Imperial College
If anyone is interested how Professors are treated at Imperial College: Here is my story.
On May 30th 13 my boss, Prof Martin Wilkins, came into my office together with his PA and ask me what grants I had. After I enumerated them I was told that this was not enough and that I had to leave the College within one year max as he said. He made it clear that he was acting on behalf of Prof Gavin Screaton, the then head of the Department of Medicine, and told me that I would have a meeting with him soon to be sacked. Without any further comment he left my office. It was only then that I realized that he did not even have the courtesy to close the door of my office when he delivered this message. When I turned around the corner I saw a student who seems to have overheard the conversation looking at me in utter horror.
Prof Wilkins had nothing better to do than immediately inform my colleagues in the Section that he had just sacked me.
Why does a Professor have to be treated like that?
All my grant writing stopped afterwards, as I was waiting for the meeting to get sacked by Prof Screaton. This meeting, however, never took place.
In March 14 I then received the ultimatum email below. 200,000 pounds research income every year is required. Very interesting. I was never informed about this before and cannot remember that this is part of my contract with the College. Especially interesting is the fact that the required 200,000.- pounds could potentially also be covered by smaller grants but in my case a programme grant was expected.
Our 135,000.- pounds from the University of Dammam? Doesnt 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 dont 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. Doesnt 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.