David Bishop, the ousted director of the Institute of Virology and Environmental Microbiology, is considering legal action against his former employer, the Natural Environment Research Council, on a number of grounds including unfair dismissal.
Professor Bishop says that his compulsory retirement was justified by NERC on the basis that the council had decided a new mission for IVEM, which would require a new scientific leadership with capabilities for which he was not suited.
"I was presented a new mission in writing but at no time was I asked whether I would be willing to implement it," he said, adding that the revised mission statement was presented to him after he was served with the notice of termination on compulsory early retirement (structure) grounds.
Sheila Anderson, head of communications at NERC, said that John Krebs, NERC's chief executive, had asked Professor Bishop several times since taking over at NERC to look at refocussing IVEM's mission to bring it into line with the council's global mission as outlined by the science White Paper of 1993. She says that Professor Bishop "did not appear able or willing to take forward our need to reorientate IVEM's mission".
Professor Bishop states that only once had the matter been raised with him and that he had assured Professor Krebs that the institute's work was, and always had been, in line with the council's agreed mission for IVEM and that this was at all times accepted by NERC line management.
Ms Anderson says that an independent expert panel, led by Roger Whittenbury of Warwick University, carried out a review of IVEM and reported this January that IVEM's strengths lay largely in virology. It concluded that "it is unlikely that any review of NERC's priorities in environmental microbiology would not embrace viruses. However, it seemed clear that many of IVEM's research programmes are at best peripheral to NERC's mission."
Professor Bishop says that NERC is wrong to represent the Whittenbury report as an independent review of the institute. The members of the study's panel did not regard it as such.
Ms Anderson says that as a result of the Whittenbury review, NERC has decided that "the mission of the institute will be refocussed to undertake basic and strategic research, relevant to user needs, aimed at generating an understanding of the biodiversity and functional roles of the microbial populations in the environment". NERC felt that the best course of action was a change of leadership at IVEM and Professor Bishop was handed his termination of service notice a few weeks ago with the full agreement of the director general of research councils, John Cadogan, and the NERC chairman, Robert Malpas.
Many scientists have been concerned by the swift manner in which Professor Bishop was removed. It is undersood that the decision to end his employment on three days' notice was taken on the basis that it would not be in the council's or the institute's interest to require him to work out his six-month notice period.
Professor Bishop was at the centre of a controversy last year over the Oxford-based institute's field trial of a genetically engineered virus insecticide armed with a toxin gene from a scorpion. Ms Anderson stresses that "at no stage has Professor Bishop's standing as a scientist of international repute been under question and his leaving has absolutely nothing to do with the field trial".