Imperial College professor Stefan Grimm ‘was given grant income target’

Emails with manager reveal details of review placed on academic found dead in September

December 3, 2014

A researcher at Imperial College London who was found dead in September had been told he was “struggling to fulfil the metrics” of a professorial post at the institution.

An email sent in March to Stefan Grimm, professor of toxicology in the Faculty of Medicine at the university, who died on 25 September, outlines the details of his “informal review process”, which include bringing in an “attributable share” of £200,000 per year in research funding and being awarded at least one programme grant as principal investigator in the following 12 months.

Professor Grimm was found dead in Northwood, Middlesex, in September, and an inquest was opened and adjourned at the West London District Coroner’s Court on 8 October.

The email, sent by Martin Wilkins, professor of clinical pharmacology and head of the division of experimental medicine at Imperial (published in full below), states that any “significant funding” attributable to Professor Grimm had ended, and that although applications for “many grants” had been submitted, Professor Grimm had “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,” Professor Wilkins writes. “In other words, grant committees can become fatigued from seeing a series of unsuccessful applications from the same applicant.”

It continues: “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 [per annum] and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.”

Professor Wilkins says that he is “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,” he adds. “Should this be the direction you wish to pursue, then I will do what I can to help you succeed.”

The email constitutes the “start of informal action in relation to your performance”, Professor Wilkins states, and adds that should Professor Grimm “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”.

Professor Wilkins’ email - shared with Times Higher Education by Imperial - was distributed to a number of associates of Professor Grimm, and was sent from an email account in Stefan Grimm’s name. The email also contained what appear to be the final thoughts of Professor Grimm ahead of his death. The text of this section of the email has already been published in a blog by David Colquhoun, emeritus professor of pharmacology at University College London.

The message was sent on 21 October, several weeks after the death. But a spokesman for Imperial College said he had no reason to believe that the email, in Professor Grimm’s name, was not genuine.

It claims that Professor Grimm had been told he was to be dismissed by Imperial, and gives more detail about the terms of his informal performance review (the email is published in full below).

It also suggests that a PhD student that Professor Grimm had been planning to take on was to be told there was no longer a place available. “He waited so long to work in our group and I will never be able to tell him that this should now not happen,” the email says. “What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine.”

A spokesman for Imperial said that, contrary to assertions elsewhere, Professor Grimm was not under formal review nor had he been given any notice of dismissal.

“It is standard practice in higher education institutions to conduct both informal and formal performance management. In this tragic case, the process was at the informal stage,” he said.

He added that all recipients of the message ostensibly sent by Professor Grimm had been contacted within 24 hours of receipt, and that the email had been shared with the authorities.

As part of the informal review process, “Martin Wilkins met with [Professor Grimm] on a number of occasions to see how the college could help him to develop competitive grant applications, for example, through internal peer-review, collaborations and letters of support,” the spokesman said.

“Discussions included talking about the best place for him to do his science, both inside Imperial and outside, and it is a fact that, with Professor Grimm’s permission, Martin made enquiries about opportunities on his behalf. During this period, at Professor Grimm’s request, members of the Faculty of Medicine provided extra help with grant applications and other support.”

He added that, as previously stated, “Imperial’s provost has asked the director of HR and one of the college’s senior elected academic representatives to review the relevant college policies and procedures.”

The report will be “considered by a senior group led by the provost and the college will move swiftly to implement any recommendations” he said.

chris.parr@tesglobal.com

Emails sent by Martin Wilkins to Stefan Grimm

Email 1
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


Email 2
Date: 18 September 2014

Dear Stefan

We need to find a time to discuss PhD students. I gather that you have one in post and have plans for a second. I know that you have been seeking external funding but I have concerns about running a research programme based on students. Perhaps we can find a time to discuss tomorrow or Monday, so that I can understand how these students will be looked after.

Best wishes

Martin


Email from professorstefangrimm@gmail.com to various associates

Sent: 21 October 2014

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

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Reader's comments (2)

These HR people think they can use words to mean whatever they want them to mean. There is nothing 'informal' about Wilkins email. It could hardly be more formal: "...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) …" Shocking.
This is what happens when research income is made an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Institutions get lauded for doing well on this, not least in this magazine http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/imperial-college-london-back-at-top-of-research-council-income-table/2017067.article Moreover, the THE university rankings use research income as a criterion. Professor Grimm's sad letter make the important point - the amount of money can bear no relation to the importance of the research. The best research universities, and university researchers should surely be those who do most with least, not those who are the biggest grant getters ? The THE should take the lead by removing research income as a criterion in its rankings.

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