World-class research into a promising treatment for skin cancer at University College London could collapse after the lead researcher failed to find a permanent post at the college after almost 20 years of relying on short-term contracts and the goodwill of colleagues.
Eva Link, whose Cancer Research Campaign-funded work has been billed by the World Health Organisation as the most promising new melanoma therapy, has been told to leave UCL by Monday. More than a dozen laboratory mice, developed over a number of years to carry human tissue that reacts to tumours in the same way as humans, face destruction, setting the work back years.
Lecturers' leaders and academic-freedom campaigners said the case is a clear illustration that short-termism and casualisation is undermining research in the United Kingdom. The government's "cancer tsar", Mike Richards, and Frank Dobson, UCL's constituency MP and the former health secretary, have been lobbied to intervene, so far to no effect.
The Association of University Teachers and the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards (Cafas), which are supporting her case, said that during spells in Dr Link's 20 years at UCL, she has worked without a salary and has often relied on the goodwill of colleagues to continue her research. She has been on 11 short-term contracts since being invited to join UCL from Poland in 1982.
Andrew Pakes, communications director at the AUT, said: "This case shows the mockery that is made of university research by short-termism, which flows from under-funding. Any outside observer would consider the treatment of Dr Link to be atrocious. How are we expected to have world-class research and attract the world's leading scientists if they have to work in these conditions?" Dr Link's research relies on the "magic bullet" principle, in which cancerous cells can be identified and treated much earlier than in current treatments without damaging healthy tissue.
Dr Link's work and salary had been funded through external grants from the Cancer Research Campaign for several years until 1995, when the CRC became concerned about having to fund the salary of such a senior researcher at UCL as well as the research itself. Cafas said that, after the CRC stopped the funding for a period in 1996-97, Dr Link was kept on the UCL payroll without salary or leave of absence, yet continued to teach and supervise research students as well as conduct her research.
The CRC awarded a new grant for clinical trialling of the therapy at UCL in summer 1999, but there was no provision for Dr Link's salary. She has been locked in disputes over her employment status ever since, despite two recommendations that she should be given a UCL post and strong backing from eminent academics and clinicians.
UCL's spokesman said the college had been very generous to Dr Link: "Dr Link was funded on external grants, primarily from the CRC, until 1995. During this time she was eligible to apply for established lectureships at UCL if she had wished. UCL allowed her to retain laboratory space while she sought alternative funding either at UCL or elsewhere. In 1997, UCL decided it could no longer allow Dr Link to retain laboratory space in this way.
"To try to assist Dr Link, UCL provided her with a two-year research fellowship on the understanding, agreed by her, that she used this fellowship to seek a position elsewhere. During this time UCL continued to allow Dr Link to remain at the university but with reduced accommodation. Dr Link's fellowship came to an end in September 1999."
The spokesman said he hoped the current CRC grant for clinical trials at the UCL hospital would show the research has therapeutic benefits. "UCL has no obligation to Dr Link but has done everything it can to ensure her work is continued."