The inquest into the death of Professor of toxicology Stefan Grimm, 51, took place last month, six months after he was found dead in his own home in Northwood, Middlesex.
The inquest heard how Grimm was at the informal stage of the College’s performance management process after struggling to acquire enough grant money for research, months before his death. The inquest ruled that Grimm had taken his own life by asphyxiating himself.
On April 7th The West London Coroner’s Court also heard the report from Imperial’s internal review of staff policies in response to Grimm’s death, which featured recommended changes, including increasing support for struggling staff members.
The senior coroner, Chinyere Inyama, noted how the funding issues were clearly mounting stress on the professor, and cited Grimm’s death as “needless.”
However, Imperial’s own director of Human Resources, Louise Lindsay, who led the internal review, admitted at the inquest that the changes still might not have prevented Grimm’s suicide.
An Imperial spokesperson has since told Felix that “Given the complex nature of suicide, it would be impossible to answer with certainty whether any action taken by the College could have resulted in a different outcome.”
The internal review has also been heavily criticised online by other academics based at Oxford University and University College London. You can read the review online here.
Grimm’s death hit national headlines last October after a posthumous email sent in his name accused Imperial of mistreatment of staff and stated that: “This is not a university anymore but a business.”
He continued: “What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine.”
In his email, time stamped as sent after his death, Grimm explained how he had received an “ultimatum email” from Professor Martin Wilkins, his line manager, in March of last year, detailing how Grimm was being placed under informal review.
Wilkins explained that although he was aware of Grimm’s dedication to try and find funding, he was still “struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College.”
Wilkins then stated that should Grimm fail to secure a £200,000 programme grant in the next twelve months, he would have to consider taking further, formal action in accordance to the College’s current policies for managing poor performance.
The internal review conducted by Imperial outlined how Grimm was actually under what is known informal review for nearly two years but no further formal action was taken in relation to his progress.
The review stated that: “the formal stages would have provided more clarity to Professor Grimm on process and support through the written documentation, representation at meetings and HR involvement.”
However, other staff that had been through performance management (similar to that undergone by Grimm) also contacted the reviewers, with it being noted in that: “there were a number of cases where staff did not feel that they had received the support that they needed.”
The review also addressed the training of management staff, the timescale and progression of informal and formal review processes, and the resources available from HR for disciplinary procedures.
The recommendations included introducing performance and disciplinary training to managers and requesting that managers notify the Human Resources department before putting employers under informal review.
The review also suggested that template emails and letters should be created for correspondence concerning performance management, and that HR also reviews all correspondence before being sent.
The report concluded with recommendations for improvements that were presented to the provost board on the 27th February. The recommendations were accepted.
The review was completed by Lindsey and the Senior Consul, Professor Richard Thompson, and was sent by James Stirling, the Provost of the College, to all heads of department. He has since received further feedback, that he said in an all staff email sent on Tuesday that they will be taking on board when implementing the recommendations.
However, some academics have criticised the suggested improvements, stating that they simply add more bureaucracy, or are unlikely to make a difference.
In a letter posted on the Times Higher Education website, Dorothy Bishop, a professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, stated that targets in academia related to performance and achieving grant need to be abolished.
Bishop said in the letter: “I am distressed to find that Imperial just doesn’t get it, and seems to think that it can avoid future tragedies by just “managing” people and “supporting” them in dealing with the crazy targets that they are confronted with.”
David Colquhoun, a professor of pharmacology from University College London, criticised the new recommendations as being steeped in bureaucracy, and stated the suggestions would simply act as a “Smokescreen for carrying on as at present.”
He also said when Grimm’s email first surfaced, that “It just seems Imperial are doing their best to whitewash it. They rarely get to the heart of the matter.”
Grimm was working on developing treatments for cancer, and he had already published four papers in that year based on his research.
The Reporter, Imperial’s own in-house staff newsletter, published an obituary for Grimm, five months after his death.
Written by colleagues from his Apoptosis research group, they described Grimm as a “terrific mentor, deeply committed to all the projects running in his lab… he was a very gentle and caring person, a man of his word, working tirelessly for his students and postdoctoral scientists.
“Stefan will be greatly missed by his current and former lab partners, colleagues and collaborators around the world.”