Stefan Grimm death prompts questions for Imperial president

The president of Imperial College London has spoken directly about the suicide of Stefan Grimm for the first time in public.

April 20, 2015

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 17 April, Alice Gast was asked to comment on the case of Professor Grimm, formerly professor of toxicology in Imperial’s Faculty of Medicine.

Professor Grimm took his own life in September last year after being told that he was “struggling to fulfil the metrics” of a professorial post at the institution, and was under an “informal review process”.

Asked about the incident, Professor Gast said that professors “are under pressure and they have a lot on their plates”.

“Professors are really like small business owners,” she continued. “They have their own teaching to perform, they have their own research and they have their research funding to look after.”

She outlined other professorial duties including working with teams of postdocs and postgraduates, translational work and the development of spin-off companies. “It’s a very highly competitive world out there,” she said.

“We’re moving towards more and more highly collaborative work, which I think helps, because one starts to recognise you can’t do it all alone.”

Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, previously told Times Higher Education in a letter that Imperial needed “an abolition of the performance targets that equate good performance with financial targets of grant income”.  

 “Placing so much emphasis on annual funding targets is bad for science, creates a dysfunctional incentive structure and is even worse for the individuals who try to do good science,” she wrote.

Earlier this month, an inquest heard that the “needless” suicide of Professor Grimm, who took his own life by asphyxiating himself, may not have been prevented if revised policies on performance management had been in place.

In the wake of Professor Grimm’s death, Imperial ordered an internal review of its staff policies, which recommended several changes, including improved support for those facing performance management, the inquest heard.

The episode of Today featuring the interview with Professor Gast is available here.

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Reader's comments (5)

What did she say? Nothing.
An opportunity lost! However, Professor Gast did make the well founded comment that UK research is underwritten to a large extent by the government (using public money). There is an expectation therefore that research environments are supportive of the academics that win that funding. This is where we can start to enforce healthy management cultures in British academia - and it shouldn't be difficult. Why don't we start by reporting on our work environments (confidentially) in feedback (interim/final reports) to government funded research councils. Individual universities would then be tasked with improving their performance if they accumulated too many "negative hits". Likewise, days sickness and unusually high staff turnover can indicate dysfunctional management. I suspect that universities try to paper over spikes in those data by benchmarking. The natural outcome of this is a mind set that can quite possibly ignore pathologic work environments by deciding that those are the norm. The need for the public or staff to resort to FOI and data protection requests may also provide a useful dataset, and one we should have full access to. At present these data are partially held by the charity Jisc ( I say partially as I am informed by Jisc that data submission is not mandatory; some universities submit data under a numerical pseudonym rather than be identifiable. Universities will only sort themselves out when forced to. That means tying the stick to funding. Given the will, and a few extra check boxes on an e-filable form, how hard is that????
In his heartbreaking email Stefan Grimm had the following statement: "...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 ..." Poor Stefan, little did you know. Listen to the words of your President: "Professors are really like small business owners" Oh really? O tempora o mores!
Quo usque tandem abutere, Alicia, patientia nostra? Quam diu etiam furor iste tuus nos eludet? Quem ad finem sese effrenata iactabit audacia? ...
Equating the largest research grant with the very best science is to seriously mistake inputs for outputs. It would be akin to awarding The Derby to the horse that ate the most hay.


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