Home > Uncategorized > Beware! Competition for research funds can kill you

Beware! Competition for research funds can kill you

from Grazia Ietto-Gillies

What I am about to report is not specifically about the economics profession. However, it is an economics issue in that it is linked to: competition for research funds and the management of academic researchers in the current culture where the public sector, including universities, is led by: targets; markets for academics – not that dissimilar from markets for footballers -; and competition.

A distinguished Professor in the Department of Medicine of Imperial College London – Professor Stefan Grimm – was found dead in his London home in September following a review of his performance in getting research grants. A few weeks after his death, Professor Grimm’s colleagues received a delayed email, sent from his account, in which he told of his tragic story and which he wanted circulated. It speaks for itself as does the letter from his manager which Professor Grimm made public. Both can be found at:

http://www.dcscience.net/2014/12/01/publish-and-perish-at-imperial-college-london-the-death-of-stefan-grimm/

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

Posted by Grazia Ietto-Gillies

  1. Nell
    December 6, 2014 at 11:26 am

    There was an interesting comment made on the dcscience link you posted above. The post was from Mark Thomas, who points out the following,

    “Grant income is usually necessary for scientific research, but ultimately it is a measure of how much we are a drain of society, not a measure of our value to society (or science).

    Can you imagine the government tracking down those who claim the most state benefits and rewarding them with more state benefits? (Actually, they do do that with bankers, but that’s another story).

    The problem here is that universities are rewarded too much for grant income, when they should be rewarded more for research output. Research would be less wasteful; society and government would get a better deal on the research they fund; good universities would get a better deal in the long run; and universities wouldn’t end up sacking good researchers who don’t like gambling too much of their time on the horrendously stochastic grant application process.”
    A good point I think.

  2. Jeff Z
    December 7, 2014 at 2:18 am

    And of course, there will also be pressure to achieve some kind of result, with or without grant support. The following link mentions at least two other deaths, but you have to scroll to the bottom of the article to get them.
    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/40841/title/Speaking-of-Science/

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