What started as a small story in the Times Higher Education Supplement went viral when the email was published by David Colquhoun, Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology at UCL on his widely read DC Science blog. Servers crashed and the story spread through social medial finally ending up in the Daily Mail which in true tabloid journalist style informed us that it was a row about cash, that the professor had gassed himself and featured comments from his elderly next door neighbours about what a nice, but quiet man he was. The Grimm email pulled no punches and named names in the Faculty of Medicine. Reading It and seeing the reaction of academics on social media it clearly touched chords with many of them who have anxiety about their ability to publish and gain large amounts of external grant funding.
Whether or not the original email was authored by Stefan Grimm himself is not proven but at present no-one seems to doubt that it was. Its contents detailing the mechanisms by which top universities deal with failure to perform is familiar to many researchers. It used to be that scientists were judged on output in the form of papers but now universities have to keep an eye to the financial bottom line. So professors, at least from Imperial College, must also raise the equivalent of £200,000 per annum of grant income to remain on the faculty. This effectively means they need to be awarded a large programme grant of £1 million over 5 years and email's from Stefan's head of department make this crystal clear and what the consequences of failure would be.
Much has been written about Stefan Grimm although most admit they did not know him. I worked in the Department of Experimental Medicine at Imperial College where he was based for 2 years between 2005 and 7. My desk was just a few feet from his office and I saw him most days. I can't say I really knew him well, I don't know who did, but I have no doubt about his strong commitment to science and his ability to work hard. He usually arrived before nine in the morning and didn't leave until after nine at night. His research was complex (in other words difficult to understand) but his students and post-docs respected him and he was very supportive. Stefan was not socially extravert and what seems clear now from the reports is that the informal performance management process resulted in frustration, despair and almost certainly depression. Looking at this from outside he might be regarded as a person very much at risk of suicide in those months leading up to the tragic event. A single man, somewhat introverted, wedded to his work and perhaps without a large social network of friends to turn to for support.
The lesson for those senior faculty members at Imperial College who handle performance management is to be minded to the possibility of that depression may be triggered or if already present worsened in staff subject to these processes. When an academic fails to be awarded grants or their research output falters it is not usually through laziness or disinterest. Most scientists I know live and breathe their work spending hours in the evenings and weekends working on papers and grants. A reasonable question to ask when research output falls is whether the scientists could be suffering from depression and consider the consequences of further stress. Any engineer will tell you that the way to protect a structure under stress is not to increase the load it has to carry. if you do it is likely to snap and in people that has severe and irreversible consequences.
We are told that Imperial College is now conducting a review. That won't change what has happened to Stefan Grimm or atone for any injustice that may, or may not, have been served on him. But lessons need to be learned and perhaps the greatest one is to be mindful of the possibility of depression and to support staff placed under informal or formal performance management in order to minimise the risk of a tragic outcome.