May 20, 2012

Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

Three timely Offline columns by Richard Horton describe a mindless managerial rampage spreading through Queen Mary University of London, UK. Barts and The London, Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry, has declared distinguished medical researchers to be at risk of redundancy.

Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences now follows suit. As we write, colleagues declared to be “at risk” just 2 weeks ago are summoned individually to closed audiences with the Head of School, attended by members of the ironically named “Human Resources” (HR) department. If targeted individuals fail to appease the inquisitor, they will be sacked. Other staff members are earmarked for demotion, with replacement “Teaching and Scholarship” contracts that will oblige them to desist from independent research.

But, one might ask, is it not high time to weed out slackers? It might help if one had any way of knowing who they are. Sadly, the “restructuring” hits exactly the wrong targets in many cases, and leaves unproductive academics unscathed. The reason is simple—the Head of School and HR have neither interest in, nor understanding of, individuals' research, still less their research potential. This slaughter of the talented relies entirely on a carefully designed set of retrospective counts of the uncountable. These are labelled research “metrics”.

Are we engaged in special pleading here? Actually, no. Our school has a reputation, envied worldwide, for research by individuals now for the chop. Their retrospective crimes, committed between 2008 and 2011, include too few publications as a “significant” author in high-impact journals, below-average external funding, and failure to meet metrics for allocation of PhD studentships. Where the baseline of research income derived from the Higher Education Funding Council for England has disappeared, no-one seems to know.

So, we are looking at the end of the road for unique and internationally leading-edge Queen Mary research. Among many outstanding projects we stand to lose are: sociogenomics of mole rats, the only eusocial mammals, and a model, incidentally, for the endocrinology of bullying; genetics of circadian rhythms and iron homoeostasis from experiments on fruit-flies; imaging of neural activity in zebrafish—a paradigm for vertebrate development; and heterogeneous catalytic oxidation and carbon—carbon coupling in inorganic chemical synthesis. The list is long.

Alas, there are no boxes to tick for advances in knowledge and understanding—no metrics for science itself. Over in the Medical and Dental School, the grand inquisitor is identified as the Dean for Research, whose own research credentials are, naturally, unavailable for scrutiny. Never mind, we now have the assurance from his colleague that “Each and every faculty member of the college was assessed in this process and from my own personal point of view it was done fairly…”

Who needs evidence in the face of such assurance? “Consequently, to pick him out for criticism in this disgraceful manner is quite iniquitous”. Yet the Dean managed to pick out others—for oblivion, not just criticism. And he got it wrong. The same double standard follows, now, in our School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. For example, one of the “metrics” for research output at professorial level is to have published at least two papers in journals with impact factors of 7 or more. This is ludicrous, of course—a triumph of vanity as sensible as selecting athletes on the basis of their brand of track suit.

But let us follow this “metric” for a moment. How does the Head of School fair? Zero, actually. He fails. Just consult Web of Science. Take care though, the result is classified information. HR's “data” are marked Private and Confidential.

Some things must be believed. To question them is heresy. We hope to report back on our Head's one-to-one interview with himself. After all, we have his word, and that of College senior management, that the restructuring is proceeding with complete fairness and transparency. Perhaps he'll use a mirror?


May 17, 2012

Dismissal threat for metrics letter

Queen Mary, University of London has warned one of its academics that he faces an investigation that potentially could lead to dismissal, after he wrote a letter criticising its metrics-based redundancy programme and two senior managers.

Fanis Missirlis, a lecturer in cell biology, and a colleague put their names to a letter to The Lancet that was published online on 4 May. On 14 May, Dr Missirlis received a letter from a human resources officer at Queen Mary telling him that the college had "decided to commence a fact-finding investigation" into an allegation that in publishing the letter he "sought to bring the Head of School of Biological and Chemical Sciences (Matthew Evans) and the Dean for Research in the School of Medicine and Dentistry (Thomas MacDonald) into disrepute". If the allegations proceed to a full disciplinary hearing and are substantiated, they may constitute misconduct, the letter says, or even gross misconduct, "which could lead to dismissal".

Queen Mary's disciplinary code says managers will "investigate thoroughly any allegations of misconduct that come to their attention and decide if formal action is needed". The restructuring programmes in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and the School of Medicine and Dentistry - which are using metrics intended to measure research performance to select candidates for redundancy - have provoked concern among academics at Queen Mary.

In the letter to The Lancet, Dr Missirlis - who has also written a letter to Times Higher Education on the subject - says the "retrospective crimes" of those selected for redundancy, "committed between 2008 and 2011, include too few publications as a 'significant' author in high-impact journals, below-average external funding, and failure to meet metrics for allocation of PhD studentships". He refers to the dean of research in the School of Medicine and Dentistry as the "grand inquisitor" in that school and says the dean's own research credentials "are, naturally, unavailable for scrutiny".

In the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Dr Missirlis says, "one of the 'metrics' for research output at professorial level is to have published at least two papers in journals with impact factors of 7 or more". He asks how the head of the school would fare on that basis.

Chris Pearson, director of human resources at Queen Mary, said: "Colleagues are free to publicly discuss their concerns over restructuring, and we have encouraged discussion and feedback ... We never discuss or comment on individual cases of staff who may or may not be involved in disciplinary matters."


May 01, 2012

University of Canberra case tests anti-bullying boundaries

IN 2008, James Warden was in the bosom of the University of Canberra. He helped stage its 40th anniversary celebrations, wrangled government money for a new Donald Horne Institute for Cultural Heritage and became its first director.

A year later, Mr Warden was no longer director. Last December, he was gone from the university. The falling out is documented in 17 pages of a statement of claim filed with the Federal Court, where Mr Warden is seeking damages. He has his first hearing date on Friday week.

Mr Warden, whose background is in history and cultural studies, says he is unsure why he came undone, but believes that his treatment at Canberra is not an isolated case. "The level of intimidation and persecution left me no option but to resign," he said. He thinks enthusiasm for his institute did not survive a change in middle management.

In September 2009, he said, he was abruptly removed as director and confronted with the first in a series of "throwaway" allegations. "They were a shopping list of complaints, none of which were documented," he said. According to Mr Warden's statement of claim, the university's allegations included "unspecified irregularities" in spending at the institute.

Mr Warden denies any such thing, pointing out that expenses had to be signed off by the dean and acquitted under an ACT government deed of grant. The university also claimed Mr Warden continued to hold out as institute director to undermine his replacement. "Not true," said Mr Warden. He said publications that were in print when he was director appeared after his removal. Introduced at a conference as director, he corrected the record.

The university began a formal investigation into his case and appointed a review committee. "It was minor administrative stuff that they had trumped up as serious misconduct," Mr Warden said. "I was lucky that I had a competent committee with integrity who looked at it and said, 'There's nothing here'."

At odds with the views of the committee, the university told Mr Warden he was "formally censured", according to his statement of claim. At one point in the drawn-out conflict the university directed him to see a psychiatrist. "He said, 'Nothing wrong, looks like an industrial issue'," Mr Warden said.

One of his legal claims is novel for higher education. His lawyers argue the university as a corporation engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct because it led him to believe it would abide by its anti-bullying policy. The university declined to comment on legal grounds.