Medical Research Council chief apologises after bullying probe

‘Appropriate action’ taken after investigation into executive chair Fiona Watt, says UKRI

December 16, 2021
Fiona Watt
Source: Creative commons

The executive chair of the UK’s Medical Research Council has apologised after a bullying complaint was the subject of an investigation.

UK Research and Innovation, the council’s parent organisation, said that while details of the independent probe into Fiona Watt’s conduct were confidential, “the findings and recommendation of the investigation were accepted by UKRI and Professor Watt, and appropriate action has been taken”.

Professor Watt said that she had apologised to the individuals who made the anonymous complaint against her in 2020.

“I was devastated to learn that my actions and behaviour had affected colleagues in a negative way,” Professor Watt said in a statement issued by UKRI. “I have now undertaken an extensive personal improvement plan to address the issues that were raised.

“I have learned a lot from this process and I am applying that knowledge actively in all aspects of my life.”

In its statement, the funder said that there was “no place for bullying and harassment at UKRI” and that it had “addressed the issues raised as part of this process”. “The individuals involved in the investigation have been supported in line with the UKRI whistleblowing and HR policies,” UKRI said.

Professor Watt, who has led the MRC since 2018, announced this year that she would step down in early 2022 to become director of the European Molecular Biology Organization. She is also director of the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King’s College London.

She said that she had “been a whistleblower” herself in the past and had “supported other colleagues to speak up when something is not right”.

“Bullying is abhorrent and I am a fervent believer in a positive research environment where everyone feels comfortable raising and resolving issues in a timely fashion,” Professor Watt said.

UKRI said there was an ongoing programme of work within the MRC to “develop a fully inclusive working environment”, including introducing new training materials and developing a new anti-bullying policy.

Dame Ottoline Leyser, UKRI’s chief executive, said it was “profoundly upsetting that people have experienced this behaviour”.

“I am grateful to those who have taken the difficult step of speaking up. Bullying is not tolerated at UKRI,” Dame Ottoline said.

“This complaint was taken extremely seriously. An independent investigator was appointed to conduct a rigorous investigation and we have worked hard to ensure that appropriate action has been taken in line with UKRI policy. 

“It is so important to me that we collectively create a working culture in which diverse views are valued and everyone is treated with respect. In this way, issues can be freely raised and addressed when they first arise, so that bullying and harassment are eliminated.”

The allegations against Professor Watt were first reported by Research Professional News. Professor Watt was previously deputy director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute and deputy director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research, University of Cambridge.

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