The National Audit Office is investigating how the acrimonious collapse of a collaborative research project between Cambridge and Bristol universities has left a senior researcher owed thousands of pounds of salary for more than two years.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council earmarked more than Pounds 40,000 to pay Cambridge research fellow William Griffin for two and a half years of work on the project, but the dispute has meant that Dr Griffin has been unable to collect his money.
The salary has been back and forth between Bristol and the BBSRC, and is currently held by Bristol. The BBSRC is to visit Bristol next week to find out why it is holding on to the money.
In May 1998 the BBSRC withdrew a Pounds 300,000 grant from the collaboration between Bristol's department of veterinary medicine and Cambridge's department of physics, aimed at developing slow-release casings for drugs.
It had been approved for a grant up to 1999, but the underwriter of the proposals at Cambridge retired and no other senior Cambridge academic was prepared to back it.
The withdrawal of the grant meant Cambridge had no funds to continue Dr Griffin's contract. He has been working unpaid since 1998. Talks of a transfer to Bristol collapsed, as Dr Griffin's research was based on an optical instrument that weighs several tonnes and is at Cambridge.
When it withdrew the grant, the BBSRC confirmed that it was prepared to pay Dr Griffin's salary "subject to receiving written confirmation from the University of Bristol that you were employed working on this grant". In February 1999 the BBSRC urged Bristol to provide the written confirmation, saying the matter had to be resolved by June. Bristol then gave the BBSRC the assurances it needed.
But by August, the National Audit Office confirmed that while Bristol had confirmed that enough work had been done to justify the salary payment, the BBSRC had not received any assurances from Bristol that the funds, if released to Bristol, would be paid to Dr Griffin.
In November, the BBSRC released the money to Bristol but Bristol asked Dr Griffin to sign an agreement including a gagging clause and a complaints waiver.
Dr Griffin said no and complained in writing to Sir John Kingman, Bristol's vice-chancellor.
Sir John replied: "The university has no obligation whatsoever to pay you a salary or any pension contributions." He wrote that if Dr Griffin did not sign the agreement, "the university would be minded to return the funds to the BBSRC".
Dr Griffin, who has been living on savings and his wife's income as an administrator, said: "The salary issue is secondary to me but my career has been put on ice. All the to-ing and fro-ing over the grant has obscured the real issues: What caused the collapse of the partnership? And why is no attempt being made to sort out the problem to allow my valuable work to continue?"
A Bristol spokesman said: "Dr Griffin is in dispute with Cambridge. He was doing work for the BBSRC at Cambridge and Bristol, and when he left Cambridge he was offered employment at Bristol, which he refused.
"He is entitled to be paid, but Cambridge could not get involved in paying him because of the litigation, so Bristol offered to act as a conduit.
"We stipulated that we did not want to be joined to action against Cambridge so we told him he could have the money with the stipulation that we would not. If he does not do so soon, we will return the money to the BBSRC."