John Allen is a close scientific collaborator, a monster of knowledge (excuse the literal translation from the Greek τέρας γνώσεως) who has honoured me with his friendship. If ever a colleague is missing, this wasn’t the case in the department I joined in 2007. But then things changed. First, when the best brain in our department was sent to live on benefits, against the signatures of most of his academic colleagues and despite a number of very senior external colleagues stepping in his defense. At the time, John and I published our first joint letter:
Firing excellence. Is this the wrong way forward? Fanis Missirlis and John F. Allen – 30 June 2009 in “Statements concerning the research achievements, qualities and potential of Dr Robin Maytum”.
The decision to dismiss Robin Maytum has been a mistake. In a few words, we will discuss some of the misconceptions that seem to have led to this decision. Embedded in this discussion is our view of the School’s research strategy. The key proposition is that we must foster a friendly and collaborative scientific environment, built on mutual trust. We shall then produce world-class contributions, and attract the best people from all over the world for collaboration. We are in the unique position of having a collegial merge of talented biologists and chemists that encompasses a very broad research scope, working in a beautiful campus in a vibrant city.
Two years later, an individual who had been previously responsible for shutting down a Chemistry Department in another university was brought in to be Head our School (following, it must be said, the failure of prolonged negotiations with a renknown scientist who was the first choice candidate). Πριν αλέκτωρ φωνήσαι, this individual suggested dismissals were required to improve competitiveness of a “Russell Group” University department. Once it became clear what he had in mind and all internal criticisms had been comprehensively ignored, John and I wrote a public letter over what we felt had been an unfair damaging act against a public institution and its highly qualified, dedicated, generous and honest workforce and its students.
Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, John F. Allen and Fanis Missirlis – 4 May 2012, The Lancet.
Three timely Offline columns by Richard Horton describe a mindless managerial rampage spreading through Queen Mary University of London, UK. 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? 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.
The story that followed the publication of this letter has not been told. It poses a challenge to a model of University ruled by diktat, where academics are reduced to employees expected to accept orders issued by higher paid but often seriously underqualified managers. Academic freedom dies in this model. For example, should John’s work on the biological reasons that led to the emergence of two separate sexes continue to receive support, despite his open dissent against the Head of School?
Female and Male Gamete Mitochondria Are Distinct and Complementary in Transcription, Structure, and Genome Function, Wilson B.M. de Paula, Ahmed-Noor A. Agip, Fanis Missirlis, Rachel Ashworth, Gema Vizcay-Barrena, Cathy H. Lucas and John F. Allen – 23 September 2013, Genome Biology and Evolution.
Respiratory electron transport in mitochondria is coupled to ATP synthesis while generating mutagenic oxygen free radicals. Mitochondrial DNA mutation then accumulates with age, and may set a limit to the lifespan of individual, multicellular organisms. Why is this mutation not inherited? Suppressed mitochondrial metabolism in the female germ line may constitute a mechanism for increasing the fidelity of mitochondrial DNA inheritance. It is possible that the evolutionary origin of separate sexes provided the solution to an inherent incompatibility between mitochondrial bioenergetic efficiency and fidelity of intergenerational transmission of mtDNA: the requirement for a lineage of quiescent, genetic template mitochondria contributed to the evolutionary origin of the female germ line.