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Top genomics institute clears director of bullying and gender discrimination

The Wellcome Sanger Institute dismissed allegations of harassment and misuse of funds, following an independent investigation.

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The Sanger Institute

The Wellcome Sanger Institute.Credit: 67photo / Alamy

One of the world’s top genomics centres has dismissed allegations that its high-profile director bullied staff, discriminated against them and misused funds, following an investigation by an independent lawyer.

The allegations concerned the management of the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK. In particular, the investigation cleared geneticist Mike Stratton — head of the institute — of bullying and gender discrimination, said a statement released by the Sanger on 30 October. “The investigation has cleared those accused of wrongdoing of all charges."

The investigation, carried out by the barrister Thomas Kibling, did identify “failings in the way in which people have been managed”, said the statement, and a lack of diversity at senior levels of the organization.

“I would like to apologise for failures in people management that have occurred and have had unintended detrimental effects on individuals,” said Stratton in the statement. “The report has helped to identify a number of areas in which we can improve.”

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust in London, which funds and owns the Sanger, also apologized for not recognizing or acting on those issues sooner.

Human genomes

Researchers at the Sanger played a key part in the Human Genome Project, unravelling one-third of the sequence of human DNA. It was the largest contribution of any of the 20 centres involved in the landmark project, which was completed in 2003.

In 1995, Stratton’s team at the Institute of Cancer Research in London identified the breast-cancer susceptibility gene BRCA2. He has led the Sanger since 2010, and was knighted in 2013 in recognition of his pioneering work.

The Sanger employs almost 1,000 scientists and other skilled professionals and is supported by recurring 5-year grants from the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest private funders of biomedical research. For 2017–21, the grant amounts to £517 million (US$660 million).

Earlier this year, the Wellcome Trust launched a pioneering policy that aims to stamp out bullying and harassment in laboratories that it funds.

Eagerly awaited

Staff at the Sanger have been eagerly awaiting the results of the investigation. In August, the institute confirmed to Nature that an investigation was under way, following a story in The Guardian.

According to an executive summary of the investigatory report, seen by Nature, on 27 April, an unnamed woman submitted a 170-page “whistleblowing complaint” against Stratton and the Sanger to David Willetts, chair of the board of directors that oversees the Sanger and a former UK science minister.

The allegations against Stratton included in that complaint were gender discrimination, wrongful exploitation of scientific work for commercial purposes and misuse of grant monies.

The investigation also considered a separate complaint, made by four unnamed individuals, including evidence that ran to more than 400 pages.

And the investigation scrutinized a specific allegation from one of the complainants that Stratton bullied people, which the complainant defined as “hostility towards any views which diverge from his own”.

Communication failings

Although the investigation found that the allegations do not stand up, the executive summary makes several recommendations. It describes “failings” — by the institute and by Stratton — in the communication of a decision that a complainant line-managed by Stratton had to leave the Sanger, and about why she had to leave. It concludes that “performance issues need to be handled in the future with greater transparency, be properly documented and reasoned”.

It recommends that the Sanger introduce a “scientific expert panel” that allows scientists to mount a challenge when they have been asked to leave the institute.

The summary also says that further work is needed to understand why there are so few female scientists employed at senior levels at the Sanger: just 7 out of 33 senior scientists, known as faculty, are women. The institute should consider “whether the Faculty Model gives rise to indirect discrimination”, the summary says.

Areas for improvement

Stratton agreed that the institute could improve its transparency in decision-making and its gender balance.

“There is a need for greater transparency and clarity in making and communicating decisions, particularly in how people leave the Institute,” he said in the 30 October statement.

He added: “There are questions relating to gender, notably the imbalance between the number of men and women amongst our scientific leaders and the challenges faced by women in forging scientific careers. Finding a solution to this is something I am personally committed to.”

Farrar said: “Wellcome has made diversity and inclusion a priority and, like most scientific institutions, there is more to do at the Wellcome Sanger Institute to make good on this commitment.” He added that the funder was “satisfied that a full, independent investigation has been carried out”.

Manolis Dermitzakis, who studies human genetics at the University of Geneva in Switzerland and worked at the Sanger from 2004 to 2009, says that the genomics community was surprised and worried about the investigation. He is relieved about the results, but says that now “we all expect improvements”.

A burning drive to succeed, and the momentum that comes with scientific discovery, can lead scientists to overlook “important aspects of working culture and human relations”, he says. “These cases teach us to be more careful, vigilant and aware of human behaviours, the impact our actions have, and to not get carried away by the fast pace that science has these days and forget to treat our colleagues with respect and understanding.”

The investigation at the Sanger follows a high-profile case of alleged bullying that came to light earlier this year, thrusting the Wellcome’s anti-harassment policy into the spotlight. On 17 August, the charity announced that it was revoking £3.5 million in funding from cancer geneticist Nazneen Rahman, after an investigation into allegations that she bullied people when she worked at the Institute of Cancer Research. It was the first time that the Wellcome had implemented the policy. Rahman resigned following the investigation.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07235-x
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