On Friday March 14th 1995, after 11 years in office, Professor David Bishop
left his position as Director of the Institute of Virology and Environmental
Microbiology (IVEM), Oxford. He was dismissed on three days notice in the
name of his employers, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). He
was banned from entering the Institute without permission of the new Acting
Director, Dr P.A. Nuttall. What had he done? What sort of treatment was
Like MRC, BBSRC and the other UK Research Councils, the NERC is a UK
Government grant-in-aid body and its Council is appointed as an independent
body by the UK Office of Science and Technology (OST) which is under the
oversight of the current Minister of Science and Technology, the Right
Honorable David Hunt MP (House of Commons, Westminster, UK FAX:
(0)181.748.2233). The Council of the NERC consists of a group of scientists,
academics, industrialists and professionals who are responsible to the OST
for determining what the organisation does. The Chief Executive of the NERC
is Professor John Krebs (NERC Swindon, UK, FAX: UK (0)179.341.1780) who was
appointed in April 1994. The Chairman is Mr Robert Malpas of Cookson Group
plc (St Peters House, 130 Wood ST., London EC2V 6EQ; FAX: UK
(0)171.606.2851). Both are appointed by the Minister and report to the OST
via the Director General of Research Councils, Sir John Cadogan, (OST, Albany
House, Petty France, London SW1H 9ST; FAX: UK (0)171.271.2018).
The reason for Professor Bishop's dismissal was given as Council's decision
to re-focus the mission of the Institute. It was stated that Council had
decided that Professor Bishop was not capable of implementing the modified
mission. These were the only reasons given, public or private.
In fact, these were not Council's decisions. Council has never met, there
was no formal review of the Institute's scientific programme, Council never
formally considered any papers on the subject, nor recommended any change in
mission for the Institute ( Council establishes the missions of its
Institutes). Nor did Council recommend Professor Bishop's summary dismissal
on the basis of lack of capability.
The senior management of NERC are stating that the change in mission followed
a review of the Institute's science. This is not correct. There has been no
peer review of the Institute's research for the last 5 years (one is due at
the end of 1995), only a cursorary oversight of the latest Annual Report of
the Institute by a group of academics under the chairmanship of Professor R.
Whittenbury of Warwick University. In fact, that group did not propose any
change to the Institute's mission, but suggested,
quite properly, how priorities for NERC's interests in environmental
microbiology should be established through the convening of a working group,
and suggested that then the role of IVEM should be considered. That is an
entirely correct way to proceed a nd, like any other peer review system,
would have involved presentations of past and future work by the Institute,
review of the management and financial arrangements. However, no group was
convened, no Institute science presentations were assessed and n o
recommendations made for any change to the Institute's mission.
So what occurred? Instead of implementing the specific recommendation of the
Whittenbury Report, the NERC Chief Executive declared that Council had agreed
a new mission, supposedly recommended by the Whittenbury Report. Professor
Bishop was dismissed as unsuitable for the job of putting it in place. This
appears, therefore to be the sole decision of the chief executive and not
that of Council. Members of the Whittenbury Group are reportedly dismayed by
the way they have been misrepresented. The NERC C ouncil too needs to assert
its authority over the situation as they also appear to have been
Professor Bishop was not shown the new mission before his dismissal and never
asked whether he would agree to implement it.
What is the new mission for the Institute that has recommended ?
It is: "To undertake basic and strategic research, relevant to users, aimed
at generating an understanding of the biodiversity and functional roles of
microbial populations in the environment" (see NATURE page 299 23rd MARCH,
1995). It is notably vague an d covers in general terms all of the current
work of the Institute.
Concerning his capability, David Bishop put in place much of the virological
and microbiological programmes in the Institute over the past 11 years. He
would be eminently capable of implementing any change in focus. Indeed he
had already implemented an earlier change in mission when the Institute of
Virology became the Institute of Virology and Environmental Microbiology.
That the NERC can act in so brutal a way is surprising to Professor Bishop's
fellow Directors and other NERC staff, as well as associates and colleagues
in Oxford and around the world. It is especially poignant in view of his
dedication and commitment to establish the Insitute as an international force
in basic and applied research and in virology (notably virus insecticides)
and environmental microbiology. This action is therefore both an insensitive
and misleading way to represent Professor Bishop's w ork and will have a
detrimental effect of his scientific career.
Professor Bishop's dismissal is an unprecedented act for any UK Research
Council. An act normally reserved for ministers of the Crown uncovered in
some dubious misdemeanour. Professor Bishop has not embezzled Council's
money, run off with the Chairman' s wife, nor committed any other
misdemeanor. NO WRONG DOING, yet anyone outside the Institute would
interpret it this way given the turn of events.
This has been a very public execution of an individual on the basis of a
small change in mission; one he is emanently capable of delivering. It is
poor way for a Research Council to behave. Would it be allowed to happen
anywhere else? It does little to enhance the NERC's reputation at home or
abroad and bodes badly for how British science is run. Will this be what
happens to other Directors in other Councils - the MRC, or the BBSRC, for
example? Declare a change in mission and fire the Director! Wha t happened
to the checks and balances for which the British Civil Service was so famous?
This action was undertaken in the name of Council by the Chief Executive, but
without consultation, due process, or the agreement of Council. This is
clearly an improper use of power. It is an issue that needs to be
investigated by the highest authoriti es in the UK (OST, Parliament). You
may wish to comment to them directly (above) and for UK citizens, to your MP.
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