More from the Lancet on SMD

Here is another editorial from The Lancet (vol. 379, 7 April 2012, p.1284) on the situation in QM’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, deriding the “scandalous, risible, disgraceful, and iniquitous leadership” which has produced an “academic witch hunt”. It is worth pointing out that this esteemed journal is apparently sourcing all of this information directly from the medical community. UCU has not so much as put out a press release. Such is the scale of the concern about what is happening to our College.

Last week we received a letter from a senior lecturer at Barts and the London School of Medicine, which is part of Queen Mary, University of London. He wrote: “I read with considerable dismay your article in The Lancet regarding alleged bullying at Barts…and its role in the restructuring of the college.” While he agreed that an extensive programme of redundancies was “uncomfortable”, he argued that “many would suggest that this has been too long in coming”. He called the criticisms of the univer sity’s leadership “scandalous”, “risible”, “disgraceful”, and “iniquitous.” He concluded: “this obviously personal, vindictive, and vitriolic attack is both unprofessional and beneath the high standards The Lancet has set for itself. I would ask that it should be retracted immediately.” The difficulty is that we have received considerable documentation to support and strengthen the original allegations.

In Britain, billions of pounds of higher education funding depend upon a university’s performance in what was called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). As set out in the School of Medicine’s “Final document” (December, 2011), the RAE in 2008 put Barts and the London in the top 5 medical schools in England, along with Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, and University College London. The medical school was as surprised as anyone else at this unexpected result. It was a “remarkable turnaround” and a “signifi cant achievement”. Indeed, it was. But its success presented the university with a problem. How was it going to consolidate its surprising leap forward? The answer was radical and ruthless restructuring to retain only those academics whose performance would embed Queen Mary in the top 10% of UK universities. Queen Mary diagnosed the next 5 years as “a critical phase”. Their predicament was worsened by a projected “loss in cash-terms of almost £3 million per annum by 2012/13, with further reductions in funding thereafter”. The future is one of “substantial and immediate deterioration of the [School of Medicine’s] financial position”. During 2011, the School undertook a review of its activities. Their conclusion was that £3 million had to be cut from the School’s budget. A Redundancy Committee was to be established. This is where a rational response to a difficult set of academic and financial challenges seems to have evolved into an academic witch hunt.

The medical school estimated that 42 jobs would have to go (the actual figure is 43). People would be targeted based on research and educational activity, clinical contribution, and “strategic fit”. Detailed criteria were set out. But as another senior lecturer at Barts and the London has pointed out to us, the criteria have been “bent and twisted to fit” the School’s need. Here are the allegations against the medical school. Performance data were not checked and confirmed with academic staff before their jobs were designated “at risk”. In many cases, data were incorrect or incomplete. Academics were judged on the journal in which they published (a notoriously unreliable measure). Journals were not ranked by special ists, leaving many publications wrongly categor ised. When judging publications, only first and last authors counted as serious contributors. “Middle authors” were deprioritised, undermining the notion of collaborative science. Who was put onto the “at risk” list of academics was a non-transparent process. Some criteria were so ambiguous that the university could “keep anyone they like no matter he/she meets other criteria or not”. A similar process is afflicting the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. As one professor there has written, “job losses are intended to raise research metrics not balance the books”. Meanwhile, teaching is further eroded and marginalised.

Why is this destructive process happening? It is, in one way, entirely rational. The RAE, and now the Research Excellence Framework in 2014, creates the kind of competitive incentives that set medical school against medical school, research group against research group, and individual scientist against individual scientist. But the best science today is not done by one scientist destroying another. The best science is conducted by supporting fruitful collaborations. Barts and the London may be an extreme example of scandalous, risible, disgraceful, and iniquitous leadership. But the whole culture of British science is being scarred by an assessment process that is costly, unfair, and utterly unreliable.

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