Source: THES
Date: 16 December 2005

Gag money rejected

Phil Baty

The whistleblower who raised the alarm about the conduct of a Sheffield University study with the drug company Procter & Gamble rejected a 145,000 payoff from his university.

Aubrey Blumsohn, senior lecturer at Sheffield University's Bone Metabolism Research Unit, said that signing a gagging clause and handing over research data would have compromised the debate over the issue. He is now likely to face disciplinary action by the university.

Dr Blumsohn was suspended in September this year after co-operating with an investigation by The Times Higher into his concerns. It has now emerged that Dr Blumsohn was offered 120,000 compensation for loss of employment and a further 25,000 for "injury to feelings" if he agreed to part company with Sheffield.

The deal, which Sheffield this week tried to keep secret by threatening The Times Higher with an injunction, would have given Dr Blumsohn little scope to discuss concerns about P&G and would have required him to return all clinical and research data.

It would also have stopped him from making "detrimental or de-rogatory statements" regarding his employment at Sheffield and about any of Sheffield's staff, inc-luding Tony Weetman, the medical school dean, and Robert Boucher, the vice-chancellor.

In a letter to the university rejecting the offer, dated December 1, Dr Blumsohn says: "Effectively, I would be accepting 145,000 in exchange for allowing part of the jigsaw of clinical and scientific debate to remain uncorrected, and this would be unconscionable."

The Times Higher reported last month that findings on P&G's osteoporosis drug Actonel had been released under the name of Sheffield researchers although they had not carried out their own, independent analysis of the firm's drug-trial data. P&G said that it was standard industry practice to limit academics' access to its drug databases and that the Sheffield team had sufficient access to support conclusions being drawn.

Dr Blumsohn was suspended in September after a complaint from Professor Weetman, who accused him of conduct "incompatible with the duties of office". The charges included an acknowledgement that Dr Blumsohn had "no trust in the university's procedures".

Dr Blumsohn first raised concerns more than two years ago. In a tape-recorded conversation in September 2003, he was told by the head of his unit, Richard Eastell, "to really watch it" because P&G provided "a good source of income".

Professor Eastell said this week that he did not recognise the comments and could not recall the context of the conversation. In May 2004, Dr Blumsohn made a written complaint to Professor Eastell, who was also medical school research dean at the time, which was copied to Professor Weetman. But the university has never initiated any investigation.

In May 2005, Dr Blumsohn's solicitor wrote to Professor Boucher explaining that he had "serious concerns" and seeking a meeting so that the university might "support him as an academic confronted with an important external threat to academic freedom and integrity". But the vice-chancellor declined.

Dr Blumsohn then wrote to the director of human resources, Rosie Valerio, in June, copying her into letters outlining the detailed concerns to Professor Eastell and P&G. He told her: "I simply require the support of the university to raise a critical and urgent problem."

Sheffield maintains that it had repeatedly requested that Dr Blumsohn provide evidence of his concerns and raise them under the correct internal procedures, which he declined to do.

A spokesperson for Sheffield said: "The university had entered into formal 'without prejudice' discussions with Dr Blumsohn's British Medical Association representative. These discussions were at Dr Blumsohn's request and had been undertaken in good faith by the university. The university would like to stress that these negotiations are the result of complex matters that have been ongoing between the university and Dr Blumsohn involving a number of different issues, and these negotiations have not occurred as a result of Dr Blumsohn having concerns about the pharmaceutical company that have been recently reported in the press."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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