Death of Stefan Grimm is a tragic reflection of higher education

editorialShortly before Professor Stefan Grimm, a former member of Imperial College London’s Faculty of Medicine, died in late September, he left a message for his fellow colleagues. The preset email, which was published online last week, made it clear that his life had been made unbearable by bullying managers. Despite having a strong publication record, Grimm had been placed under heavy pressure by the university after failing to secure research funding.

In the months leading up to his death, he was warned that his job was at risk, and was told that he would need to be awarded at least one programme grant as principal investigator in the coming 12 months and secure £200,000 in research income every year.

The instructions were passed down in an email, also published for the first time last week, from the head of Imperial’s division of experimental medicine, who stated that Grimm would need to give “serious consideration as to whether [he is] performing at the expected level of a professor at Imperial College.” The late professor was then told by the same person, a week before he died, that he might not be able to take on a second PhD student as he planned.

This particular colleague, according to Grimm’s last email, had no interest in the progress of his work and did not attend the regular seminars held by their common department. Grimm was a cancer research pioneer, the author of 73 research papers, but he was of limited commercial use to university bureaucrats and so they made him feel worthless.

That a university consistently ranked among the best in the world would deem revenue raising more important than scientific output is unsurprising given recent trends in higher education. That its henchmen would be capable of such levels of persecution in the name of profit is downright sinister.

These funding pressures of course exist in Ireland too. Private sources of revenue have become increasingly important for university departments and faculties restructured for value as central college grants are cut. But collegiality and a shared understanding of the importance of academic research must trump market demands even when research grants and endowments fail to fill funding holes. It took the death of a brilliant 51-year-old professor to get people talking about the dangers of university commercialisation in the UK. Let’s hope that conversation begins heard by those at the top.

Catherine Healy

Editor of Trinity News. Interested in politics, history and all forms of media.