Sanger whistle-blowers dispute findings that cleared management of bullying

Current and former employees say investigation at the Wellcome Sanger Institute was flawed; the genomics powerhouse stands by the findings.

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Wellcome Trust Genome Campus

The Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, was central to the Human Genome Project.Credit: Robert Evans/Alamy

Six current and former employees are calling for the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK — one of the world’s top genomic centres — to reopen an investigation that last week cleared its management of bullying, gender discrimination and misuse of grant money.

But the organization that oversees the Sanger stands by the investigation’s conclusions and says it has no plans to review the findings.

The group of six, which consists of five scientists — including the author of the original whistle-blowing complaint that triggered the investigation — and one former member of senior management, raises concerns about the process of the investigation and questions the decision to clear senior management at the institute of the allegations.

Among other things, the group says that the investigation did not interview enough people, and that its scope may have been too narrow. The group members, who say they are among a total of 12 people who contributed evidence to the April complaint that prompted the probe, also question the transparency of the investigatory process.

Their concerns “cast doubt as to whether the investigation was conducted in a manner that was as effective as it could be, given the seriousness of the allegations”, they say in a statement seen by Nature. Serena Nik-Zainal, a clinical scientist who now works at the University of Cambridge, sent the statement to Genome Research Limited (GRL), which oversees the Sanger and commissioned the investigation from barrister Thomas Kibling, on 2 November.

“We firmly believe sufficient evidence was not unearthed to make an appropriate judgement,” says the statement.

David Willetts, chair of the board of GRL, told Nature that the investigation was independent and detailed, and that the organization does not plan to review the findings.

“We believe Mr Kibling carried out a thorough and independent investigation as he was tasked to do,” he says.

The Sanger employs almost 1,000 scientists and other skilled professionals, and played a key part in the Human Genome Project, which concluded in 2003.

Whistle-blowing complaint

GRL released a redacted executive summary of Kibling’s investigation report on 30 October. The summary says that the investigation considered “various whistleblowing concerns” in a document submitted by one staff member that alleged that the institute and its director, the geneticist Mike Stratton, had committed gender discrimination, wrongful exploitation of scientific work for commercial purposes and misuse of grant monies. The summary also says that the investigation considered an allegation that Stratton had bullied someone. And it says that Kibling, of Matrix Chambers in London, cleared Stratton and the Sanger’s management of all these accusations.

The authors of the 2 November statement are Nik-Zainal; Inês Barroso, a human geneticist who has worked at the Sanger since 2002 and who says she wrote the initial whistle-blowing complaint; Jyoti Choudhary, a proteomicist now at the Institute of Cancer Research in London; and three people, including the former member of the senior management team, who wish to remain anonymous to protect their careers.

Barroso says that she was asked to leave the Sanger before she made the complaint, but has not yet left. She says that her decision to speak out could affect her career, but it is important to protect the next generation of scientists at the Sanger. “There are times in life when you just need to stand up for your principles and beliefs. This is one such time.”

Serious allegations

The 2 November statement questions the level of information that the investigation considered. It says that Barroso’s whistle-blowing complaint was supported by a further 11 people, but that some of the total 12 people involved in the complaint, and many of those suggested as witnesses in Barroso’s document, were not interviewed. “Given the seriousness of the allegations, this is surprising and risks not adequately collating evidence, thus diminishing the full appreciation of the gravity of the situation,” says the statement.

Willetts, who is a former UK science minister, says that initially, nine people provided statements in support of the whistle-blowing complaint, and that Kibling spoke to all of them and to the whistle-blower. Two people provided supporting statements later. He interviewed 23 people in total. “Mr Kibling therefore considered evidence going well beyond the evidence of the individual making the referral,” says Willetts.

The 2 November statement also questions the investigation’s finding that there is no evidence for some allegations, and suggests that this might be because crucial evidence fell outside the scope of the investigation.

In the executive summary, Kibling notes that he is not required to determine the merits of any individual’s grievance “which are not in the nature of a whistleblowing complaint or advanced by others” — and that such grievances are to be dealt with in a separate process.

The November statement refers to this note, and says: “We fear that in our case this led, whether intentionally or by inadvertence, to the ignoring of evidence that was relevant to allegations about the prevailing culture.”

The statement adds that: “Witnesses confirm that they were not asked about matters that were capable of confirming the claim. Other suggested witnesses were not interviewed at all.”

In conclusion, those who gave evidence to the investigation say that they do not understand “how the Executive Summary is then able to conclude that there is not bullying, harassment or gender-specific bias.”

But Willetts says that Kibling “reviewed all the evidence he was provided with” and that this included evidence relating to alleged discrimination, bullying and harassment. He adds: “We therefore don’t accept that he ignored evidence relevant to the allegations raised in the referral made.”

Willetts stresses that Kibling did “consider evidence related to the broader concerns raised”.

Kibling told Nature that it was his “judgement call” to decide who would assist him in his investigation and therefore who to interview. “The investigation needs to be proportionate and focused on the whistleblowing complaint made and not the individual grievances that some of those I spoke to harboured,” he says.

“I believe that I spoke to those who had a valuable contribution to make and being necessary for my investigation,” he adds.

Transparency concerns

The statement also bemoans a lack of transparency during the investigation, and in the communication of its results.

The six were not made aware of Sanger’s response to their allegations, says the statement, or of any drafts of the report. “Thus, we could not correct any inaccuracies nor could we comment when the Full Report was critical of us,” they write.

They acknowledge, however, that it is difficult to judge the extent to which the lack of transparency affected the outcome.

Willetts says that Kibling had full discretion to meet with anyone he felt it appropriate to, and speak to witnesses more than once if he felt it was necessary during his investigation, which he did so on a number of occasions. He adds that an internal grievance procedure relating to the “individual making the referral” is now under way, and that this person will have the opportunity to comment on Kibling’s report as part of that procedure.

Failings identified

The investigation did identify failings in how people have been managed at the Sanger, and a lack of diversity at senior levels of the organization. The 2 November statement acknowledges these findings, but the authors still say that they are “disappointed by the investigation process”.

They call on the Wellcome Trust in London, which owns the Sanger and which introduced a pioneering anti-bullying policy earlier this year for the labs that it funds, “to reconsider whether the principles of this investigation lived up to its own standards”.

Wellcome say that they “are satisfied that a thorough and appropriate investigation has been carried out” and that GRL has met the requirements of their policy.

The statement calls for a review of the investigation process by an external agency, and a “full, open and transparent” investigation.

Willetts says: “Whilst nothing should be ruled out given there is an individual grievance process still ongoing, the GRL Board is not currently considering calling for any external agency to review the investigatory process.” And he reiterates that “Mr Kibling has already conducted a detailed and independent investigation into the allegations raised”.

Wellcome add that they have no further plans to investigate at this time.

Kibling says that he hopes the Sanger and those who supplied evidence to the investigation can use his report “as a catalyst for moving forward constructively and addressing the concerns raised”.

He says that he stands by his investigation. It is “inevitable and to some extent understandable and not unusual” that rejecting whistleblowing allegations can lead to disappointment, he adds.

Stratton did not respond to Nature’s request for comment.

Nature 563, 304-305 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07339-4

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