Whistleblowers: Conflict of interest row over councils contract

March 15, 2002

'Mr Pullan is said to be concerned that while employed as the research councils' coordinator, Dr Metcalfe played a lead role in drawing up the CRAC's bid for the new contract'

Allegations of a conflict of interest have blighted the award of the multimillion-pound contract to run the joint research councils'

prestigious Graduate Schools Programme (GSP).

The councils have awarded a five-year contract to run the £1 million-a-year programme to the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC). The GSP provides careers and skills training for postgraduate researchers.

But consultant the GPA Partnership, which has delivered the programme jointly with the CRAC for 16 years but will play no future role after the end of this year, has complained privately about a conflict of interest.

GPA chief executive Philip Pullan has protested to the research councils about the position of Janet Metcalfe, a freelance consultant employed by the councils as coordinator of the GSP.

Mr Pullan this week declined to comment and said he had no intention of making his private views public. But he is understood to be concerned that while employed as the research councils' coordinator, Dr Metcalfe played a lead role in drawing up and delivering the CRAC's bid for the new contract.

GPA and the CRAC will continue to deliver the programmes jointly until the end of this year. But the CRAC's new contract, which will run for five years, begins in June.

Mr Pullan is understood to be angry that the research councils have continued to employ Dr Metcalfe as GSP coordinator after she helped the CRAC win its new deal in December at the expense of GPA. She is likely to continue to make decisions of commercial interest to GPA and the CRAC under the present joint contract, at least until the end of the month, when her contract comes up for renewal.

The THES has learnt that Dr Metcalfe also received payments from the CRAC to tutor on the graduate programme while she was the programme's coordinator. She also stands to benefit from the CRAC's successful bid, as she will become director of the GSP centre of excellence under the CRAC's new contract.

A spokeswoman for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which manages the programme on behalf of all the councils, said: "This matter was raised by Mr Pullan with the EPSRC in a letter of complaint in January 2002, seeking the termination of the contract for the GSP coordinator. This was not acceptable to the EPSRC. Mr Pullan has responded with a further letter in February 2002, which is under consideration."

The spokeswoman said the award of the contract followed standard procedures in accordance with European Union rules. She said the EPSRC was aware of Dr Metcalfe's position as leader of the CRAC bid and knew she had worked as a paid tutor for a CRAC-run graduate school. "The EPSRC do not see her participation as a tutor as compromising her position as a coordinator of the programme."

She said that Dr Metcalfe's contract as coordinator would end on March 31. "This is several months before the new contract with CRAC is planned to commence and around nine months before the current contracts with both GPA and the CRAC expire.

"It is yet to be decided who will undertake the coordination of activities of the GSP when the contract of the current coordinator expires."

She stressed that Dr Metcalfe did not play any part in evaluating the bids for the EPSRC. She said final details of the deal were still being negotiated.

Jan Davis, head of organisation development at the CRAC, said that when the opportunity to tender arose, the CRAC approached a number of potential partners, including the existing contractors and new organisations. "Dr Metcalfe, together with (several other partners, including a number of universities), decided to participate in the CRAC bid and GPA decided not to," she said.

"Dr Metcalfe is a key partner in the CRAC bid. Like the other partners, her role in the delivery of the contract was made explicit throughout and, along with the other partners, she was not paid in connection with the preparation of the bid.

Ms Davis said Dr Metcalfe was paid a standard tutor rate by the CRAC to tutor on one GSP each year "to assist in the evaluation of the programme". Dr Metcalfe's salary as a director of the GPS centre of excellence was still under negotiation.

Dr Metcalfe referred The THES to the CRAC's comments.

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