How Professors are treated at Imperial College

This is the title of an e-mail by Stefan Grimm sent on 21 October 2014 – less than 19 minutes before midnight.

The full email is published by David Colquhoun’s Improbable Science “as a public service”:

Publish and perish at Imperial College London: the death of Stefan Grimm

Stefan Grimm’s email has been abridged here. Please also take note that the sender of this message is unknown (see David’s blog post). Emphasis and links are mine triggered by very similar experiences I have shared with Stefan; I have also written similar letters while working at Queen Mary University of London, during its restruction in 2011-2012.

Let’s listen to Stefan Grimm:

On May 30th ’13 my boss came into my office together with his Principal Assistant and asked 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 within one year – “max” as he said. He made it clear that he was acting on behalf of the then head of the Department of Medicine, and told me that I would have a meeting with him soon to be sacked. Without any further comment he left my office. It was only then that I realized that he did not even have the courtesy to close the door of my office when he delivered this message. When I turned around the corner I saw a student who seems to have overheard the conversation looking at me in utter horror… All my grant writing stopped afterwards, as I was waiting for the meeting to get sacked. This meeting, however, never took place.

In March ’14 I then received the ultimatum email. 200,000 pounds research income every year is required. Very interesting. I was never informed about this before and cannot remember that this is part of my contract with the College. Especially interesting is the fact that the required 200,000.- pounds could potentially also be covered by smaller grants but in my case a programme grant was expected. Our 135,000.- pounds from the University of Dammam? Doesn’t count. I got this after the student for whom I “have plans” received the official admission to the College as a PhD student. He waited so long to work in our group and I will never be able to tell him that this should now not happen. What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine.

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. After all, how can you convince your Department head that you are working on something exciting if he not even attends the regular Departmental seminars? These formidable leaders are playing an interesting game: They hire scientists from other countries to submit the work that they did abroad under completely different conditions for the Research Assessment that is supposed to gauge the performance of British universities. Afterwards they leave them alone to either perform with grants or being kicked out. Even if your work is submitted to this Research Assessment and brings in money for the university, you are targeted if your grant income is deemed insufficient. Those submitted to the research assessment hence support those colleagues who are unproductive but have grants. Grant income is all that counts here, not scientific output. We had four papers with original data this year so far, in Cell Death and Differentiation, Oncogene, Journal of Cell Science and, as I informed Prof W this week, one accepted with the EMBO Journal. I was also the editor of a book and wrote two reviews. Doesn’t count.

This leads to a interesting spin to the old saying “publish or perish”. Here it is “publish and perish”.

Did I regret coming to this place? I enormously enjoyed interacting with my science colleagues here, but like many of them, I fell into the trap of confusing the reputation of science here with the present reality. This is not a university anymore but a business with very few up in the hierarchy, like our formidable duo, profiteering and the rest of us are milked for money.

If anyone believes that I feel what my excellent coworkers and I have accomplished here over the years is inferior to other work, is wrong. Was I perhaps too lazy? My boss smugly told me that I was actually the one professor on the whole campus who had submitted the highest number of grant applications. I am by far not the only one who is targeted by those formidable guys. These colleagues only keep quiet out of shame about their situation. Which is wrong.


Stefan – no direct communication is further possible, but here is a poem I read yesterday. It makes me think of you.

11 thoughts on “How Professors are treated at Imperial College

  1. More emails published today by the Times Higher Education, including two by Martin Wilkins.

    We cannot bring the dead back, but we should do something to expell the golden boys from the sector. One civilized commentator under the original THE report suggested lengthy prizon sentences for them. One key point is for academics to be the decision makers of universities. Otherwise we will be treated as slaves – the Imperial way.

  2. Promotion for manager at Imperial College. One cannot help thinking of the dead body.

    David Colquhoun asks how these people sleep at night. Lack of empathy and evasion from responsibility have always been characteristic for exploiters in all sectors of life. The three ghosts visiting uncle scrooge have plenty to visit. Merry Christmas ho-ho-ho!

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