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Friday, August 31, 2018

University of Bath paleontologist loses 1 million pound Leverhulme grant over bullying complaints

Some readers will have seen my Tweets over the past week about Nick Longrich, a paleontologist at the University of Bath with a reputation for bullying students and postdoctoral researchers in his lab. This has raised serious concerns among members of the paleontology community, who are worried about both current students in his lab as well as several new ones who are reportedly scheduled to begin working with him this fall (in academic terms, that means imminently.)

According to sources familiar with the situation, Longrich's bullying behavior has included shouting and screaming at his students and postdocs, and belittling them and their scientific abilities. Issues have also been raised about the quality of the supervision he gives to his junior colleagues.

In response to my initial queries about this, the university press office issued a curt statement on August 22:


“All staff and students have a right to be treated, and have an obligation to treat others, with dignity and respect. We can confirm that an investigation has taken place following allegations of bullying and appropriate disciplinary action has been taken. In fairness to all those involved we will not be commenting further at this time.”


But after I began widening my queries, including contacting the chair of Longrich's department and the head of Bath's Milner Centre for Evolution--with which Longrich has an important affiliation--the university got back to me with a more detailed statement as follows:


“In fairness to all those involved and taking into account our obligations to staff and students under legislation relating to General Data Protection Regulation we are providing further information only where we are satisfied that the privacy of individual students and staff would not be compromised and the necessary consents have been obtained.

“Following a formal complaint made at the end of May 2018 in relation to a potential breach of the University’s Dignity and Respect Policy, which applies to all students and staff, a formal investigation began at the beginning of June and was concluded at the end of July. The investigation was conducted by a senior academic from another University Department with professional support from our Human Resources team. The investigation panel considered written and oral statements, taking evidence from the complainant, the subject of the complaint and a number of others.

“The conclusion reached was that though there had been no malicious intent, the formal complaint should be upheld. Having considered the range of options available to the university and the evidence provided to the investigation panel, disciplinary action was taken and formally communicated to the subject of the complaint.

“An oral warning was given as to future conduct. Changes have been agreed to supervisory arrangements for current students which will apply to future students.”


It appears from this that Longrich will still be allowed to supervise students even if some arrangements to protect them have been made (that is not entirely clear.) Will those arrangements be as effective as necessary? Have the students been warned about his behavior and given the choice of switching to other labs?

I do not yet have the answer to those questions, but I am not the only reporter looking into this. All we journalists can do is shine a light at misconduct; it's up to the scientific community to do something about what our reporting reveals.

Update Sept 3: I am told by the communications officer of the Leverhulme Trust, from which Longrich is the recipient of a large grant through the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, that they are now aware of the bullying allegations and are investigating. Longrich is the holder of a Research Leadership Award from the Trust in the amount of 998,815 British pounds.

Update Sept 4: In discussions with more sources for this story, three important facts have emerged. First is that some of Longrich's new students (there are at least three) have already arrived in Bath and begun working in his lab, even though the new term does not officially begin until October 1. He reportedly asked them to come early, or required them to. Second, the formal complaint which the university investigated (see above) involved several students and not just one. Third, the main targets of the alleged bullying were women.

Update Sept 7: I have asked the University of Bath press office (Media Manager Chris Melvin) whether the incoming graduate students, some of whom have already arrived, were told that the university upheld a complaint of bullying against Longrich. After two days I do not have a response. Will update again once I do.

Breaking news Sept 18: I am now told by the Leverhulme Trust that Longrich has lost his nearly 1 million pound Research Leadership Award (which normally covers 4-5 years) but that his current doctoral students "will not be disadvantaged by this." That presumably means the university has made alternative arrangements for their supervision; will update as I learn more. Hoping that Science and Nature will now do the coverage of this they should have before. Update: Glad to see that Nature News has now covered the story and look forward to others doing so as well.

Sept 19: University of Bath outlines how Longrich's current students will be protected. What will Longrich's own fate be?

A big question in this episode has been what the university is doing, or will do, to protect and help students who have come into Longrich's lab this fall. The good news is that the Leverhulme Trust will continue to support those students financially, according to their statement yesterday and confirmation from the university today (see below.) A large portion of Longrich's 998,815 pound Research Leadership Award was intended for support of students and postdocs, and that will apparently continue. It also appears that students will be able to choose new supervisors if they wish to. (Addition 6 October 2018: A source in Longrich's department tells me that the students have received a significant amount of help and support from other faculty to make sure they are able to pursue their studies and their careers. That is good news.)

As for Longrich: Sources in the scientific community tell me that the big grant was a major boost for Bath's Milner Centre for Evolution, which has just been inaugurated, and with which Longrich is prominently affiliated. With his grant pulled and the possible loss of students and postdocs, what is Longrich's future at Bath (or anywhere else?) Without severe consequences for misconduct, the culture will not change, even if the careers of individual abusers sometimes come to an end (most of Longrich's bullying victims were reportedly women.) I will continue to report on this important case.

Here is the statement today from a university spokesperson:

“We respect this decision by the Leverhulme Trust and appreciate the fact they will continue to support the existing PhD students.

“All staff and students have a right to be treated, and have an obligation to treat others, with dignity and respect. The University has previously issued a statement about the result of a disciplinary hearing. We have been supporting students and staff throughout this period.

"All affected students have had one-to-one meetings with senior staff where alternative supervisory arrangements have been discussed.”




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