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Lab Times





In a Modern Meritocracy…

…all that counts is how many loaves a baker can bake in a

given time frame or how many cars roll off the assembly line per

hour. Can you measure scientific performance the same way? Of

course, you can’t! Science isn’t done on a piece-work basis. But

this doesn’t deter some university administrators from, now and

again, evaluating their research personnel’s job performance. If

a researcher does not publish a predetermined number of papers

in high-profile journals or does not secure enough funding, he or

she is made redundant. (Monkey??) business as usual.

In 2012, exactly this kind of strategic,

economic thinking stripped some biological

and medical staff at the Queen Mary Univer-

sity London of their jobs. Jeremy Garwood

wrote about the “inexorable rise in business

culture at UK universities” in his article “Aca-

demic Values no Longer add up” (



pp. 20-24). Back then, the outcry was loud-

er than a pride of angry lions but not much

seems to have changed, with perhaps tragic

consequences. In September, Stefan Grimm,

professor of toxicology at Imperial College

London, took his life; just months after he

was told his job would be at risk.

In their obituary, the German-based Max

Planck Institute of Biochemistry, for which

Grimm worked as a group leader from 1998

to 2004, described him as a “highly dedi-

cated scientist, insightful group leader and

friendly and obliging colleague”. Are those

character traits – dedication, empathy and

diligence – no longer sufficient to survive

the science enterprise?

Of course, it’s not entirely clear whether the harsh working

climate at ICL was the sole reason behind his suicide. But email

conversations suggest that it might have been. What exactly

brought an esteemed researcher to the verge of despair?

An email, which emerged a month after Grimm’s death and

which is signed by him, paints the picture of a deeply disappoint-

ed and frustrated scientist. Subject: How Professors are treated

at Imperial College. The email begins, “On May 30


’13 my boss,

Prof Martin Wilkins, came into my office together with his PA and

ask me what grants I had. After I enumerated them I was told

that this was not enough and that I had to leave the College with-

in one year – ‘max’ as he said”.

Resurfacing emails sent by Wilkins to Grimm are riddled

with cold-hearted business talk. Care for an example? On March



, 2014, Wilkins writes, “I am of the opinion that you are

struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial

College which include maintaining established funding in a pro-

gramme of research with an attributable share of research spend

of £200k p.a. and must now start to give serious consideration as

to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Profes-

sor at Imperial College. Over the course of the next 12 months I

expect you to apply and be awarded a programme grant as lead

PI. This is the objective that you will need to achieve in order for

your performance to be considered at an acceptable standard.”

Up until this point, Grimm, working on apoptosis and tumori-

genesis, had garnered more than 50 publications. His most recent

article on apoptosis inhibition at the outer mitochondrial mem-

brane had just been published (

EMBO Journal


In his posthumously published email, Grimm later writes,

“The reality is that these career scientists up in the hierarchy of

this organization only look at figures to judge their colleagues be

it impact factors or grant income. (…) The

aim is only to keep up the finances of their

Departments for their own career advance-

ment.” He continues, “Did I regret coming

to this place? I enormously enjoyed interact-

ing with my science colleagues here, but like

many of them, I fell into the trap of confus-

ing the reputation of science here with the

present reality. This is not a university any-

more but a business with very few up in the

hierarchy, like our formidable duo, prof-

iteering and the rest of us are milked for


The complete letter and much more on

the case is available on David Colquhoun’s



For Colquhoun, all this does not come as

a surprise. For many years, the pharmacol-

ogist at the University College London has

been following the continued bullying at Im-

perial College and elsewhere. “The problem

is by no means limited to Imperial. Neither

is it universal at Imperial: some departments

are quite happy about how they are run. Kings College London,

Warwick University and Queen Mary College London have been

just as brutal as Imperial. But in these places nobody has died.

Not yet,” he sarcastically remarks.

Whether the situation at Imperial College really led Grimm

to commit suicide or not is hard to tell. His death has, however,

brought increased awareness, not only to many in the scientific

world but also to the general public, of the working conditions at

European research institutes, fuelling debates and giving food for

thought. “It’s impossible to manage research,” David Colquhoun

writes. “If you want real innovation you have to tolerate lots and

lots of failure. ‘Performance management’ is an oxymoron. Get

used to it.”

Assembly line production

doesn’t work for science.

Image: Fotolia/ Jeanette Dietl