The “needless” suicide of an Imperial College London researcher still may not have been prevented if revised policies on performance management had been in place, his inquest has been told.
Stefan Grimm, who was professor of toxicology at Imperial’s Faculty of Medicine, was found dead in his home in Northwood, Middlesex, on 25 September last year, West London Coroner’s Court was told on 7 April.
The academic, who had been told that he was “struggling to fulfil the metrics” of his professorial post at the university, took his own life by asphyxiating himself, it was ruled.
“He had long-standing discussions about funding which were clearly a stressor for Professor Grimm,” said Chinyere Inyama, a senior coroner, who called his death “needless”.
The inquest heard how Professor Grimm had felt under pressure to obtain higher levels of funding and had talked at length to various colleagues about this situation.
But Louise Lindsay, Imperial’s director of human resources, told the court that “a number of colleagues were helping [him] with grant applications”.
In the wake of Professor Grimm’s death, Imperial ordered an internal review of its staff policies, which recommended several changes last month, including improved support for those facing performance management, the inquest heard.
However, when asked if changes being made would have helped Professor Grimm, Ms Lindsay said it was “not clear it would have resulted in a different outcome”.
Ms Lindsay also said that Professor Grimm was “not under formal management procedures”, but had faced an “informal process” regarding his performance. “He was aware formal procedures may follow,” she said.
The inquest heard that there were typed notes next to Professor Grimm’s body, but the hearing did not refer to an email containing details of his performance review sent from an account in his name to several of his associates almost a month after his death. The message had revealed how he had been told by managers that he was failing to obtain an “attributable share” of £200,000 a year in research funding and was set a target of winning at least one programme grant as principal investigator in the following 12 months.
The email also criticised Imperial, claiming it was “not a university anymore but a business”, in which “profiteering” senior managers treat academics as units to be “milked for money”.
In a statement, Imperial said that it was “deeply saddened” by the death of Professor Grimm and “offers its deepest condolences to Stefan’s family and all those affected by this tragedy”. It added it had a “duty of care” to all its staff and hoped to “create an environment in which everyone understands what is expected of him or her, how they are supported in meeting expectations and able to perform to their best”.
“In the months since Stefan’s death, Imperial has examined more broadly how it supports staff during performance review,” it added, saying that staff had been invited to respond to its recommendations.