Top cancer genetics professor quits job over bullying allegations

A leading light in the world of cancer genetics, who was honoured at the outstanding Asian women of achievement awards and given a CBE, has quit her job at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) after facing multiple allegations of bullying dating back 12 years.

Prof Nazneen Rahman, who is the high-profile head of genetics and epidemiology at the ICR, was given leave of absence last November after a letter signed by 45 current and former employees accused her of “serious recurrent bullying and harassment”.

The letter claimed that Rahman’s behaviour had caused psychological harm and career damage, “some of it very serious”. Of the 45 signatories, 22 claimed to have suffered direct bullying which created an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive” working environment.

A further 23 former or current employees of the ICR and its sister organisation, the Royal Marsden hospital where Rahman also holds a key role, claimed to have witnessed incidents of bullying and harassment.

Rahman is an internationally recognised expert in her field. Her work – which has focused on identifying genes that cause disease, particularly breast, ovarian and childhood cancers – has brought her numerous accolades and secured millions of pounds in funding for the ICR.

Two years ago she was awarded the CBE in recognition of her contribution to medical sciences; she was number three on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour power list in 2014 and has also been honoured at the outstanding Asian women of achievement awards. She is also a singer-songwriter and has made a number of albums.

The complainants claimed the ICR had failed to take appropriate action for years despite “multitudes of oral and written complaints” against Rahman at both the institute and the Marsden.

The letter said: “The ICR is a world-class research institute which employs exceptional researchers united in making the discoveries that defeat cancer. Each of us felt privileged to be appointed by the ICR and to be given the opportunity to contribute to this endeavour. Sadly, many of us left our employment at the ICR psychologically damaged and disillusioned.”

The institute confirmed it had “received allegations of bullying against a member of our staff”, and an investigation had been held into the allegations.

The ICR said: “We take any complaints about bullying extremely seriously, and immediately commissioned an independent investigation into the allegations by a respected law firm. We reviewed the findings of the investigation and discussed them with the staff member. The staff member decided to resign and will be leaving the ICR.”

The ICR said it had revised its policy on bullying and harassment and introduced an external hotline for reporting complaints. “We recognise we could have done more to support those who came to us with concerns and are absolutely committed to learning the lessons,” it said. “In addition to the changes we have already made, we are reviewing the investigation findings in detail and will be implementing further recommendations in full.”

Its statement added: “The staff member is an ICR employee and contracted to the ICR but has an honorary contract with The Royal Marsden, which will end at the same time because it is dependent on the staff member’s employment contract.”

Rahman, who will leave the ICR at the end of October, told the Guardian she was proud of the work she and her team had done at the institute in the fight against cancer. “I am sorry the group feel this way,” she said. “I want to make it clear that following the investigation there were no disciplinary findings against me. And the decision to resign was mine and mine alone.”

Concern has been growing about bullying in the world of academia where PhD students appear to be particularly vulnerable because of the power imbalance in their relationship with their supervisor, who they depend on for publications, references and future opportunities.

One of the complainants in the ICR case told the Guardian she felt she was being undermined on a regular basis “such that by the end of it I really had a lack of confidence in my own abilities”. Another said: “In academia people who are brilliant can find it difficult to work with people who are not and that’s a way of justifying bad behaviour.”

Earlier this month, the scientific journal Nature reported that the Max Planck Society, one of Germany’s most prestigious research bodies, was investigating fresh allegations of bullying and sexual harassment after an earlier expose in Der Spiegel.

In May, the Wellcome Trust, which is one of the world’s largest research-funding charities, announced a new policy aimed at cracking down on harassment and bullying in order to create a more positive research culture. Under the new rules scientists who have been sanctioned by their institutions could lose out on funding.


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