Over the limit?

January 2, 1998

Sociologist Martin Plant has always been controversial - he accepted grants from the drinks industry and paid prostitutes to collect data - now he has left Edinburgh University facing fresh allegations. Sian Griffiths reports

Martin Plant is filming with the BBC later in the day - an item on drinking and driving. His wife Moira is working on another television film - about women and alcohol, the subject of her most recent book.

Dr Plant, until recently director of Edinburgh University's alcohol and health research group, offers up these snippets as evidence that his career as a well-known researcher on drugs and addiction is still very much a going concern, even though his 19-year stretch at the university has ended under a cloud. There have been allegations of research "irregularities" and accusations of harassment from a colleague.

But Plant remains gung-ho. He says he has enough money coming in to keep his research outfit - now operating as an independent agency in accommodation rented from Edinburgh's City Hospital - busy for at least a couple of years. He is engrossed in two international studies, one on the different drinking patterns of men and women, another on parents' role in teaching their children how to stay healthy. "That's as good as it ever gets," he jokes, looking back on a career built largely on "soft" money, short-term contracts awarded by companies to academic researchers to carry out investigations.

Arguments over the detail of such contracts and the research methods employed have intermittently dogged Plant's progress, which has also included stints as an adviser to the World Health Organisation, and as a member of a Royal College of Psychiatrists' committee advising the government on alcohol policy. The Scottish Office is locked in negotiations with the university, his former employer, over the repayment of Pounds 50,000, just over a third of the grant it awarded two years ago to a team led by Plant to investigate allowing alcoholics to dry out at home, treated by nurses, rather than in hospital. In August last year the Chief Scientist's Office announced that it was suspending further grant payments following the discovery of various "irregularities" related to the project.

Plant, however, says the "irregularities" stem from nothing more serious than a dispute over items that were billed to the project, such as "project workers attending a training seminar, the costs of which were charged to the grant". Such disputes, he says, do arise and are usually resolved quietly with a minimum of fuss between the parties involved. In this case, he suggests, someone making "anonymous" phone calls tipped journalists off about the Scottish Office's concerns - including the suggestion that there are methodological flaws in the research. On this last point Plant is dismissive - saying that he has no idea what these flaws are supposed to be and that the local (independent) ethics committee has been asked to investigate the conduct of the research and make a definitive ruling about the ethics of the procedures followed.

The "Home Detoxification Service", subject of the disputed research, operates in an area around Stirling in Central Scotland. Plant insists that the research into the detoxification service's effectiveness and cost - which has another year to run - should be completed. "I think it would be a tragedy if what has happened led to this project being stopped. This service helps 500 people a year, all with drinking problems bad enough to ruin their own and their families' lives. GPs in the area think it's a wonderful project - it relieves them of a group they found difficult to handle. The idea of a treatment agency just run by nurses is novel, effective, and, I believe, cheap. Our aim was to find out whether this really is the case." This week, though, a Scottish Office press officer said that even if the negotiations with the university over the return of the Pounds 50,000 were resolved, the project was "no longer a runner".

So, is there any chance that Plant will find himself liable for repaying the Pounds 50,000, either to the university or to the Scottish Office? "No," comes the quick answer. "It's not my responsibility." He ceased to be the principal grant holder for the research last year when he moved his group out of the university and set it up as an independent agency, the Alcohol and Health Research Centre. The disputed project is now headed by Colin Bennie, a senior nurse, who originally suggested the idea of the detoxification service in 1991. But, adds Plant, Bennie is not responsible for the money either. "The administration of the grant from the Scottish Office rests with Edinburgh University."

It is not the first time controversy has dogged Plant's work. In 1978 he set up the alcohol and health research group within the psychiatry department at Edinburgh University where his wife, a former nurse, later came to work. The group has always been self-funding, dependent on attracting money from outside organisations for its continued survival. At the outset a large grant was given by the Scottish Whisky Association - "without strings", says Plant. He admits that many people are generally unhappy about the principle of taking money to carry out research from organisations that have a vested interest in the findings. "The attitude I have taken to the drinks industry is that I think it is appropriate for them to fund research. I would not take money from tobacco companies to pay for my research - but that is my personal view of the world."

For a decade Plant's research went relatively smoothly. But in the 1980s the group started research on sexual behaviour and risk-taking, embarking in particular on a study of the sex industry in Edinburgh. The Aids epidemic was escalating and Edinburgh had many sufferers. Funded by the Medical Research Council, the research examined the risk of contracting HIV from indulging in unprotected sex with male and female prostitutes in the city. Using a mixed team of social workers, academics and prostitutes to collect data, Plant's team found that a substantial minority of those using prostitutes (around a third) wanted unsafe sex. The findings were published in the British Medical Journal.

Criticisms surfaced quickly - about both the conduct of the study and the quality of the data. One worry was that paying prostitutes to collect data might have led some of them to make it up. This is disputed by Ruth Morgan Thomas, the first cited author on the BMJ paper, and herself a former prostitute. "The benefit of using prostitutes as interviewees is that you get an honest reponse," she says. Nonetheless, the university set up an inquiry which, in the words of Norman Kreitman, a member of the inquiry committee and former research director at Edinburgh, "exonerated Dr Plant of any impropriety", though there was concern that one batch of data might have been unreliable. Kreitman, now retired, says he regarded Plant as "a very productive researcher" though not, perhaps, as the most "diplomatic" of academics.

Then came an episode Plant himself describes as "very serious - an enormous ethical problem". The Portman Group, a lobby organisation set up by several big drinks manufacturers, was funding Plant's team to the tune of Pounds 500,000 over five years. In 1995 an employee of the Portman Group invited at least one researcher to write anonymous reports commenting on a World Health Organisation book about alcohol problems, edited by London-based addiction expert Griffith Edwards. Nick Heather, director of the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Studies at Newcastle University, was approached and declined. "This was unacceptable because it was anonymous and because I was being offered a relatively large amount of money (Pounds 2,000) to do it," says Professor Heather, who was then phoned by John Duffy, a statistician within Plant's group, who wanted the names of alternative reviewers.

The incident featured on a Dispatches television programme and was a factor in the breakdown in the relationship between Plant and Duffy. "We reported this to the university and dissociated ourselves from Duffy," says Plant. "The issue was anonymity. Researchers have to maintain a transparent and open relationship about their funding agencies." Duffy later left and now works in the Chief Scientist's Office at the Scottish Office in Edinburgh. As a civil servant he says he is not permitted to speak to The THES.

"As a kind of psychotherapy we got together with an academic from Newcastle University after that incident and wrote a paper about ethics, research and funding," says Plant. But over the past three years the fall-out has rippled through the team, affecting its work. In October Plant finally severed his ties with Edinburgh. Both he and the university agree that the psychiatry department's research plans (for biological and genetic research) do not conform with the type of social science research the alcohol and health research group was carrying out. When the team's core funding, from the Portman Group, ran out last year, Plant made a move.

But he left with yet another allegation hanging over him - that he had harassed a university colleague. "I have responded to that with my own counter harassment claim," he says. "It was related to the fall-out from the Portman affair. (The allegation) was not sexual harassment."

All things considered, his has been a controversial career, encompassing the kind of hiccups which might lead observers to agree with a recent headline in the Scottish edition of The Sunday Times over an investigation into Plant's research team: "One too many doubts". "Um, yes, but that article conceded that the first 20 years of my academic life were quiet," he responds. "I do operate in a contentious area. One of the people who helped us get information for the BMJ paper - a former rent boy - died two or three years ago of Aids. This isn't ivory tower research."

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