Academic who spoke out now faces sack

September 30, 2005

A lecturer who told The Times Higher about his fears of research misconduct at Sheffield University has been suspended, writes Phil Baty

A senior Sheffield University academic is facing the sack because he spoke openly to The Times Higher about allegations of research misconduct.

Aubrey Blumsohn, senior lecturer in human metabolism at Sheffield's School of Medicine, co-operated with an investigation by The Times Higher after losing faith in a university investigation that had failed to reach a conclusion about his allegations almost two years after he had first raised the issue.

Dr Blumsohn has now been suspended, and could lose his job over alleged "conduct incompatible with the duties of office". This includes charges of raising serious complaints outside agreed university procedures, of "briefing journalists" and of "distributing information, including a Times Higher article, to third parties with apparent intent to cause embarrassment".

His suspension has caused an international outcry. Celebrated whistleblowers Nancy Olivieri, of the University of Toronto and David Healy, of Cardiff University, as well as other prominent scientists, have condemned the move.

The Times Higher always protects the identity of sources who pass on information in confidence, but Dr Blumsohn informed the university of his communication with the media. This newspaper reported in April that he had made allegations against a junior research colleague, Jackie Clowes, and his boss, Richard Eastell, head of Sheffield's Bone Metabolism Research Unit, where they all worked.

In September 2003, Dr Blumsohn filed a formal complaint claiming that Dr Clowes had made a series of research grant applications, supported and signed off by Professor Eastell, that were based in large part on Dr Blumsohn's intellectual property. One of Dr Clowes's applications won a £475,000 fellowship from the Arthritis Research Council (ARC).

An initial internal investigation of the allegations, by Gordon Duff, a research director in the School of Medicine, concluded in March 2004 that Professor Eastell and Dr Clowes had a prima facie case to answer.

The Duff report found that Dr Blumsohn and Dr Clowes had made a number of joint grant applications in which Dr Blumsohn had clearly been the "main author" of the work and the "driving force", while Dr Clowes was "a junior colleague".

Dr Clowes later made grant applications without Dr Blumsohn using "substantial parts of the material" from their joint applications.

One "incorporated virtually identical text to that in Dr Blumsohn's previous grant applications", the report found.

But within weeks of Professor Duff's findings, Tony Weetman, the dean of the School of Medicine, decided to "set aside" the report on procedural grounds.

The Duff report was withdrawn because Professor Eastell said that he had never received the original full written allegations and thus had been unable to respond properly when interviewed.

Dr Blumsohn lodged a formal grievance that argued it would have been "impossible" for Professor Eastell not to have been aware of the allegations and that it was wrong to suppress the Duff findings.

In October 2004, a grievance panel concluded that although the Duff report had been set aside in "good faith", its prima facie findings should stand and the investigation should be moved to the next stage.

A new panel was set up in November 2004, chaired by Peter Fleming, the university's pro vice-chancellor for external affairs. It considered the allegations from scratch but it was blighted by procedural wrangling.

In April 2005, Dr Blumsohn withdrew from the Fleming investigation because he said he had lost confidence in the university's procedures after disputes over his access to documentation.

He also rejected Sheffield's demands to change the original remit of the investigation to cover other allegations he had raised in the 19 months since his original complaint, which he wanted to handle separately. Dr Blumsohn was never interviewed by the Fleming panel.

But last week, the panel concluded in the absence of Dr Blumsohn's evidence. It found that "there was no evidence that research misconduct had taken place".

The panel said that "as Dr Blumsohn failed to attend the investigatory meeting to give his account", it decided "on the balance of probabilities" that Dr Blumsohn, Dr Clowes and Professor Eastell shared joint ownership of earlier grant applications that they had made together.

So the subsequent applications made by Dr Clowes alone, supported by Professor Eastell, were not plagiarised, as the material was jointly owned by all parties.

In a joint statement issued by their solicitor this week, Professor Eastell and Dr Clowes said that they were delighted to have been exonerated.

The statement said: "The work of the bone metabolism group has always been based on collaboration under the leadership of Professor Eastell."

A spokesman for Sheffield said the university was committed to the fair and thorough investigation of complaints and that this complex case had been closed in line with its procedures. The university said it was not policy to discuss ongoing internal procedures concerning staff.

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