Whistleblowers: 'Irregularities' continue to dog drink researcher

October 4, 2002

New evidence of financial and scientific irregularities by leading alcohol researcher Martin Plant has emerged following an investigation by The THES .

Edinburgh University this week confirmed for the first time that it had found financial irregularities after investigating Professor Plant's conduct when he was running the university's alcohol and health research group during the 1990s. And details have also emerged about the Scottish Office's decision to halt a £131,000 research project headed by Professor Plant in 1997 that call into question his claims that all allegations of financial and scientific irregularities with the project were proved to be without foundation.

It has emerged that Professor Plant claimed expenses twice for an overseas trip when he was at Edinburgh. After a trip to the Netherlands in May 1995, he was reimbursed the £197 cost of the flight from the Dutch centre he visited and from the university.

Professor Plant, who now runs his alcohol and health research centre at the University of the West of England, told The THES : "I once mistakenly made a duplicate claim for travelling expenses. The university authorities brought this matter to my attention, and as soon as I realised what I had done I repaid the money."

But documents seen by The THES suggest that questions were raised about a number of other expenses at the time. In 1995, the research group's director of statistics, John Duffy made a formal complaint about the legitimacy of a number of Professor Plant's expenses claims and financial transactions.

Professor Plant said that he had been engaged in a long-running and acrimonious dispute with Mr Duffy and there was no substance to his claims, and no wrongdoing. "I have often paid for research costs out of my own pocket - typically, office furniture, computers and even carpets," Professor Plant said.

An Edinburgh University spokeswoman said this week: "Martin Plant's financial conduct was investigated in some detail at the time of his employment. Some irregularities were identified and rectified."

Professor Plant left Edinburgh in 1997 when the outside funding for his research group dried up. But he quickly became embroiled in a separate, high-profile, controversy.

In autumn 1997, a £131,000 research project funded by the Scottish Office was withdrawn after an investigation into "financial and scientific irregularities".

Professor Plant, who has always denied wrongdoing, told The THES : "There were no such irregularities as alleged it eventually transpired. There was no deviation from the original project brief and all finances were within limits and accounted for."

He said he had made a £1,500 personal donation to the research funds, no money was ever used for any purpose other than that for which it was claimed, there was never any secrecy about what the money was used for, and no one associated with the study made any personal gain from project funds.

He said that the allegations were "all rapidly shown to be without foundation". The allegations materialised, he said, only after his former Edinburgh colleague Mr Duffy, whose relationship with Professor Plant was still acrimonious, had moved from Edinburgh University to the Scottish Office as a research manager.

But the Scottish Executive, formerly the Scottish Office, this week confirmed that Mr Duffy "did not have anything to do with the project at any stage" and confirmed that it had indeed found irregularities.

A spokeswoman said that the project was suspended to investigate "the legitimacy of some of the items of expenditure that were not (obviously) allowable under the grant conditions. Subsequently, Edinburgh University, which employed Professor Plant at the time, accepted that £8,052.62 had been wrongly paid," she said. In 1998, Edinburgh returned the £52,000 already allocated.

She said that important changes to the design of the project had been made "without the approval of the Scottish Office or the Local Ethics Committee, which is required under the terms and conditions of the grant", and that the changes "encompassed significant alterations to the nature of the study that compromised the experimental design of the project and led the Scottish Office to the conclusion that it would be totally inappropriate to reinstate it".

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