Autumn 2018 saw the opening of the Molecular Sciences Research Hub (MSRH), which represents a new research home for the Department of Chemistry on Imperial’s new White City campus. With the first term in White City drawing to a close, Felix reached out to various staff and students across all levels of the Chemistry department, from undergraduate student to postdoctoral researcher and beyond, and invited them to reflect on their experiences of the new building and campus. The two questions that were asked were, “how have you found the move to White City in this first term?” and “what issues have you seen/ experienced associated with the move to White City”.
In a staff briefing sent out via e-mail on Friday 16th November, Professor Alan Armstrong, Head of the Department of Chemistry, was quite positive about the move to White City. Although acknowledging that “no move is easy” and recognising that there have been “teething problems”, Professor Armstrong enthused about the open layouts for office and write-up areas, which “provide a great contrast” to the buildings in South Kensington and “allow greatly improved interactions between researchers, which is already leading to better collaborative working and cross-pollination of ideas”. Although many of the staff contacted by Felix shared Professor Armstrong’s sentiment that many of his colleagues have been “struck most by how the building really has changed” the way they interact with each other, this rather glowing assessment of the move to White City has not proved to be accurate amongst the majority of staff.
When reflecting on Professor Armstrong’s staff briefing, one member of staff commented, “It’s PR isn’t it? It doesn’t really have any basis in reality. It’s whatever they want to go out. Just like any business.” The general sentiment of staff and students at White City has been less than positive, with one member of staff describing the move to the campus as “poorly managed and a terrible experience overall”. They elaborated further, stating, “We (the students/staff moving the labs) received very little information in the months prior to the move and then were told 4 weeks in advance our specific moving dates. This was coupled with confusing information surrounding logistics of packing of equipment/chemicals etc.”
This member of staff’s complaints were consistent with a number of other members of staff and also with many of the students and researchers that have been relocated to the new building. One major recurring issue was the general feeling that the move to White City was poorly managed. One post-doctoral researcher reflected on the “serious issues in the planning and handling of the moving process” as follows:
“Information passed on to us earlier this year from people involved in the planning process was that a ‘one size fits all’ policy had been applied to building design, i.e. all floors will be built to near-identical specification and corrections made as and when necessary. The diversity of research requirements in the department makes this a totally infeasible approach. This has affected both our ability to settle in to the new facilities, and the rate at which other issues can be addressed.”
When approached for comment, Professor Alan Armsrong said the following:
“It has been an incredibly complicated operation. That’s the first thing to say. We’ve got everything ranging from biology labs, laser labs and, of course, chemicals, so the whole process of moving and getting everything across to White City has challenging. I think, given that complexity, it’s generally gone as well as you can expect. Recognising what a complex scenario we had, it was inevitable that there were going to be some things that aren’t perfect and it was actually pretty good.”
One major issue that stemmed from the perceived mismanagement of the move is the significant loss of time while moving. That is to say, the move caused large periods of “downtime”, during which research groups were unable to conduct any research and were, instead, assisting with the relocation of labs. One member of staff added, “most students had to take at least 3 months to prepare, relocate and set up their laboratory space. However some were affected more than others, particularly students where there was only 1 or 2 group members responsible to move an entire laboratory.”
This sentiment was shared with a particular post-doctoral researcher who provided Felix with a comment:
“I get the impression there probably should have been better planning in the initial stages. Our impression has been pretty good actually. There have been problems. Some of our equipment took a month after we had moved to arrive. It’s kind of essential to what we do. So effectively for a month we couldn’t work as we normally would have been working. Compared to other people it’s not that bad but again it’s not great for us. We’ve had a bit of downtime on each side. There was sort of disrupted works. Some groups have had 3 months downtime. I don’t think it’s been particularly well managed. Obviously the completing of the building and stuff was relatively planned far in advance but I think things like where each individual group was going and what equipment and spacewas needed was last minute so I think that’s probably a large source of a number of the problems.”
The staff and students generally recognised the inherent complexity of orchestrating such a move, acknowledging that “in a departmental move of this scale, snagging is unavoidable, and a new building is always going to have teething problems”. However it was felt that “mismanagement of the move has cause huge losses of time and research output, which will disproportionately affect those whose time at the College is limited”.
A further source of grievance that has resulted from this loss of time is the question of reimbursement. This has been a source of major confusion, particularly for post-doctoral researchers who are still not completely aware whether the department or the College will provide any sort of financial reimbursement for lost time. Some researchers even went so far as to accuse the College of a misappropriation of funds given for research projects. “We were given money to look at developing drugs for cancer and Alzheimers research and not to cover a relocation budget shortfall by moving boxes.”
Post-doctoral researchers, who work on a fixed term contract, were left in the dark for long periods regarding the possibility of reimbursement. Final year PhD students, who also suffered from a similar loss of time and productivity, have been reimbursed with an extension of a month (or two, depending on the circumstances). One researcher explained:
“You have a fixed term contract and that time is the time you have to do work so, if you lose a month of work… we’re not getting that back at the moment unless the department decides to reimburse us for that lost time. The funding agency employed us to work for that time. There was a month where we couldn’t work because of the move and we were doing other stuff, setting things up, moving things, cataloguing etc. Arguably a breach of contract. That’s not really fair to us or for our careers. It’s not great to lose a month of time where you could have been employed. So I think they haven’t done a lot to even address that. There should be more of a policy in place because they’ve done it for final year PhD students, who’ve got an extra extension of a month or two to cover that. So they’ve just not addressed that with postdocs at all and it’s as important for us as it is for them.”
In response to the complaints from post-doctoral researchers in particular, Professor Armstrong said the following:
“All the way through, we were trying to minimise disruption but something this complex, it was always inevitable there was going to be some and I think the fact that the handover was delayed and the final few weeks kept shuffling forward a week meant there was uncertainty as to exactly when we were going to move right near the end. We’ve said that, on a case-by-case basis, we will make up for lost time. We have paid an extension to their PhDs for the downtime and we dealt with those first because the end of their PhDs was September and that was right in the move period. Often people get a lot of their results at the end of their PhD, that’s the most productive time, when you’re frantically using the last time in the lab and that was the time the move was at the peak so we made the decision to act on the final year PhD students straight away and we gave almost all of them a bursary extension to cover the lost time. We’ll do the same for 2nd years and 1st years when the time comes. If they’ve still got a year and a half funding left, we’re not at the stage yet where their money stops so we’ll deal with it on a rolling basis.”
One researcher summarised the issues that have been experienced since the move as follows:
“Building not being complete, disability access not being clear, facilities not operational when we arrived, limitation on the hours that we can actually do our work. Deep impact on the career of the researchers, the overall trajectory of the groups. Incredible impact on morale.” This researcher went on to beg the question, “Why the hell did we have to move at this particular time, when the building was not ready and they knew it was not ready? It should have been left another year until it was absolutely spick and span. Then the move could have taken in a much more efficient way.”
Professor Armstrong has acknowledged that the building is still incomplete and provided some explanation as to why the move still went ahead:
“That’s completely true, there are two floors below ground where no research groups have moved in yet. Essentially the whole building project overran. Originally, for a long time, the building was going to be handed over in February and then it switched to April. It kept edging forward and eventually it was handed over in July and we had to make a decision, do we start moving or not? All the way through, what we’ve been trying to do is to minimise disruption to students, so we wanted to move during the longest holiday period we could. Summer. So, even though two floors are not finished, we decided to go ahead with the move. That’s absolutely true, there are two floors that are not ready but we’ve done what we can to mitigate disruption.”
The building not being completed has lead to numerous issues. One member of staff complained: “Drinking water taps and toilets go unrepaired and lifts are often out of service for weeks at a time, as well as other more major issues which stem from inadequate design of the lab facilities. In light of this, the lack of presence of Estates facilities or external contractors throughout much of the building is striking. These problems faced by researchers, staff and students alike, are invariably described as ‘temporary’. Whilst technically true, for a department comprised primarily of temporary workers - be they undergraduates, postgraduates or postdocs - this is of little consolation. Postdocs on short-term contracts risk losing out on grants and further positions if their research output drops; it’s unclear if the significant downtime caused by the move constitutes a breach of contract in cases where a postdoc is contracted to conduct research work only. This situation is far from an unqualified success.”
Although largely negative, the feedback from this move was not all doom and gloom. Some positive feedback was received regarding the layout of the laboratory and study spaces. One PhD student said the following:
“It cannot be overstated how much the office working environment for chemists has improved in the new building – for the majority it is the first time researchers have experienced bright and clean office space.”
This assessment was in keeping with some of the positives included in Professor Armstrong’s brief and, when asked what the department’s response to criticism would be, Professor Armstrong said:
” What we could do for example is, now people have been there for a few weeks, we could put out a survey that says let us know what your thoughts are. We might pick up a load of little things that sometimes bother people but they don’t feel they’re big enough to talk to a member of staff. I think it would be a really good idea, now that we’re in there and people have had a month or 2, to say what is missing? The amount of people that have been involved in the project from Estates, safety, as well as the researchers, it’s actually pretty stunning that we’ve got as much done as we have. But I completely agree, there was no way it was going to be perfect and there are things that were not perfect and we’ll put them right and we’ll listen to whatever students have to say.”
The White City campus very much remains a work in progress.