News in brief

January 12, 2012

MMR vaccine study dispute

Wakefield sues BMJ for libel

The former doctor whose discredited research linked the MMR vaccine to autism has launched a libel suit against the British Medical Journal. Andrew Wakefield was struck off the UK medical register in 2010 following an investigation by the General Medical Council. The libel suit relates to an article by journalist Brian Deer published in the BMJ in January 2011 that detailed Mr Wakefield's alleged fabrication of data for the now-retracted 1998 Lancet paper that first reported the link. Mr Wakefield is also suing both Mr Deer and BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee, who wrote an editorial to accompany the article. The suit has been filed in a court in Texas, where Mr Wakefield now lives. A statement issued on behalf of the BMJ and Mr Deer says the journal will "vigorously" contest the claim. It says that in the light of the GMC investigation and Mr Wakefield's "history of pursuing unfounded litigation", any case brought in London "would have been immediately vulnerable to being struck out as an abuse of process". It adds that Mr Wakefield's continuing apparent insistence on the accuracy of the Lancet paper compounds "his previously found misconduct". Commentators suggest that the suit stands little chance of success.

International students

V-c's reassurance about safety

The president of Universities UK has written to newspapers in India to try to reassure people planning to study in Britain following the murder of student Anuj Bidve. Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, says that Mr Bidve's death in a shooting in Salford on Boxing Day was an "exceptionally rare" event and "a loss for us all". Mr Bidve had been studying microelectronics at Lancaster University. A 20-year-old man has been charged with his murder. In the letter to papers including The Times of India, Professor Thomas stresses that UK universities take the safety of international students "very seriously". He adds that "compared with other countries the UK remains a safe and tolerant country with low levels of violence and street crime". His intervention follows concerns that coverage of the killing could have a similar impact to that experienced by Australian universities, which saw the flow of students from India sharply decline after a series of attacks on students.

University applications

Late recovery stems decline

A "late surge" in student applications has helped to reduce the year-on-year decline, it has been claimed. However, the latest data still show applications by UK students running 7.6 per cent below last year's levels. The figures published last week by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that 283,680 domestic students had applied to university by 19 December - down 23,228 on last year's figure of 306,908. After a 13 per cent rise in non-European Union applicants is taken into account, the overall drop in applicants to UK universities stands at 6.4 per cent. The decline is significantly smaller than previous interim figures have suggested. In October, the overall dip was 9 per cent, while November's figures were 12.9 per cent down on the cycle for 2011 entry.


Last week we used the wrong picture when reporting Christopher McCrudden's appointment as professor of human rights and equality law at Queen's University Belfast. We apologise for the error.


In an Opinion article, Miles Hewstone, professor of psychology at the University of Oxford, argued that it was wrong for the research excellence framework to measure the outputs of only selected academics, and that all full-time staff should be assessed. Not everyone agreed. A reader responds: "Utter tosh. The REF is a funding mechanism to fund the highest quality research. It funds that research per capita for the people submitted. Of what significance to it [are] non-researching academics, paid from completely separate funds, on the payroll of the submitting institution?"

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