Inaction fuels research row

April 29, 2005

Phil Baty investigates a bitter dispute that has cast a dark shadow over a medical school

When lecturer Aubrey Blumsohn made allegations of research misconduct against his boss and a junior colleague, he could never have imagined that, 20 months later, the claims would still be hanging over Sheffield University's Medical School - and still be unresolved.

Dr Blumsohn claimed that it was substantially his work that formed the basis of a series of research grant applications that Richard Eastell had sponsored and signed off for another academic, Jackie Clowes, without acknowledging his input and despite his objections.

One application secured Dr Clowes a £500,000 fellowship from a research charity.

An internal university inquiry concluded, more than a year ago, that there was a prima facie case for Professor Eastell and Dr Clowes to answer, yet question marks continue to hang over the reputation of staff and of Sheffield's Medical School as rumours about the case reverberate. Following Professor Eastell's resignation as research dean of the Medical School earlier this month - "to concentrate on his other activities" - the university said that its investigations had been delayed by the complexity of the case and an "extremely regrettable procedural error". It insisted it was "deeply committed to thoroughly and fairly investigating complaints".

But Dr Blumsohn said that the university had "failed to react appropriately to any of the matters raised".

He complained: "The ultimate goal appears to me to make the process sufficiently painful that problems will not be raised".

Blumsohn's claims

Dr Blumsohn, a senior lecturer in human metabolism, joined Professor Eastell's renowned bone metabolism research group in 2000. In his formal complaint, in September 2003, Dr Blumsohn explained that Dr Clowes had been Professor Eastell's PhD student but had "worked closely" with Dr Blumsohn looking at the effects of food intake on the skeleton, which became the focus of her PhD.

During 2001, Dr Blumsohn had made a series of unsuccessful grant applications, naming Dr Clowes as a co-applicant and collaborator, to acknowledge the "small" contribution he claimed she had made to the work.

By 2002, Dr Clowes had left Sheffield for a hospital registrar's job.

But Dr Blumsohn claimed he became "extremely concerned" to learn that Dr Clowes was planning to make solo applications that he believed were based on his work, with Professor Eastell's backing, to secure funds for a return to the university. He said his protests to Professor Eastell went unheeded.

Dr Blumsohn claimed that a 2002 application by Dr Clowes to GlaxoSmithKline was based on his work but excluded him as a co-author. Dr Blumsohn also alleged that the application that won £475,000 from the Arthritis Research Campaign "encompassed much of my work".

"The background and justification for the grant, as well as the evidence given for expertise in this area is entirely mine," he wrote in a formal complaint to Tony Weetman, dean of the Medical School.

Investigation

The university's investigation into the complaint was chaired by Professor Eastell's research collaborator, Gordon Duff.

Professor Duff, director of the division of genomic medicine at the Medical School, was joined by two outside assessors: Robert Poole, chair of microbiology, and Julian Kinderlerer, assistant director of the Sheffield Institute of Biotechnogical Law and Ethics.

Six months after the complaint was made, and having interviewed all three academics, the Duff review group's report was sent to the dean in March 2004.

In the report, Professor Duff says that when Dr Blumsohn and Dr Clowes had previously made joint grant applications, Dr Blumsohn had been "the main author". Moreover, written evidence from four other independent sources supported the fact that Dr Blumsohn was "the driving force" in these applications", while Dr Clowes was seen as a "junior colleague" or "support team member".

Professor Duff continues that the grant applications later made by Dr Clowes alone used "substantial parts of the material" from the earlier Blumsohn-led applications.

He reports that Dr Clowes's GSK Fellowship application did include proposals that had not been in the earlier joint applications, but also "incorporated virtually identical text to that in Dr Blumsohn's previous grant applications".

It included data attributed exclusively to Dr Clowes, while the same data had earlier been attributed to both researchers.

'Riding roughshod'

In the review group's conclusions, Professor Duff says that there is "some justification for Dr Blumsohn to feel that he was being undermined by his junior colleague... acting with the support of his senior colleague, Professor Eastell".

He says: "Dr Clowes, and especially Professor Eastell, as an experienced academic, should have realised that it was inappropriate to exclude Dr Blumsohn from being at least a co-sponsor of the fellowship."

One member of the panel says that Dr Clowes was highly ambitious and believed that Dr Blumsohn's work was inferior to her own. Professor Duff concluded that she "may have allowed ambition to outweigh respect and consideration for others".

Professor Duff comments that Professor Eastell "may have too many responsibilities to give the necessary attention to the large bone metabolism research grouping that he leads".

In a separate report, included with Professor Duff's summary report, Professor Kinderlerer, says: "He could have defused the problems by acting in a forthright and clear manner to ensure that the staff working with him were happy and able to work together."

Professor Kinderlerer says that it appeared that Dr Clowes "was willing to ride roughshod over Aubrey (Blumsohn) for whom she had contempt. Aubrey has been badly burnt by two ambitious individuals".

Procedural oversights

A month after Dr Blumsohn received the Duff report, he was summoned to a meeting and told by Professor Weetman that the report could no longer stand - "due to a procedural oversight". Professor Eastell had made a complaint that he had never received the full written original allegations and so could not properly respond to them.

The Duff review group had noted that, although "impressive when interviewed", Professor Eastell "appeared to have come (for interview) unprepared and was clearly not sure of the 'charges'."

In a formal grievance against the decision to set aside the Duff report, Dr Blumsohn argues that it would have been "impossible" for Professor Eastell not to have been aware of the allegations.

He produced a signed statement from a colleague confirming that there had been a meeting between Dr Blumsohn and Professor Eastell, before the complaint was officially lodged, where the issues had been discussed.

Dr Blumsohn's union representative said she believed the process had been fair, and that Professor Eastell had been aware of the charges against him.

In October 2004, seven months after Duff reported, the grievance committee ruled that appointing a Medical School insider to report on the matter had been "inappropriate", but that the Duff findings had been set aside "in good faith".

It adds: "The committee recommends that the (Duff) group's prima facie findings should stand, and that decisions as to the action required in the light of those findings be taken by those concerned as soon as possible."

Six months later, however, and almost 20 months since the original complaint, the new panel set up to take the matter forward has still not completed its work.

Professor Eastell, through the university, has declined to comment, and Dr Clowes, who is on secondment in the US in the middle of her ARC fellowship, would say only: "As this matter is subject to investigation, it would be inappropriate to discuss it in the media."

The university said that Professor Eastell's resignation as dean - not a permanent post - was agreed during his annual appraisal in November last year.

A spokeswoman for the ARC said that Dr Clowes was awarded the fellowship after "extensive peer review of her application by experts in her field".

She said that it was "very much" aware of the claims - "and allegations are exactly what they are until proven to be true".

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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