Four stories that illustrate why whistleblowers need more protection

The powerful are willing to sacrifice the well-being of those who challenge them. Why are they allowed to get away with it, asks Mark Geoghegan

May 24, 2023
Whistle blower illustration
Source: Getty

Reporting misconduct is a traumatic experience for whistleblowers, especially if the allegations are inconvenient for those receiving them. At a former university, I submitted a complaint that mentioned an undeclared relationship between a head of department and an undergraduate student in their department. The head was subsequently promoted, while I was bullied and gaslit for three years by senior colleagues.

The outcome of my grievance appeal was the worst part for me. It was distressing to realise that people in positions of trust could not, in fact, be trusted. Shortly afterwards, I informed my lawyer that I wanted to pursue constructive dismissal.

But it turns out that my experience of reporting misconduct was not as bad as it gets. An internationally acclaimed social scientist at a Russell Group university told me she was subjected to an intensive bullying campaign after reporting the failure of an operating model imposed on a research institute and refusing her senior manager’s demand to erase the evidence. She describes the manager’s behaviour as professional stalking and his exploitation of a female staff member to assist his hostilities as predatory misogyny. When she attempted to complain formally, her university allowed the senior manager to direct the “investigation”. Amid unremitting hostility and facing severe impacts on her health, she retired.

Nick Hartell was professor of neuroscience at the University of Leicester before being made redundant. He reported that one of his successful proposals to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council had been extensively plagiarised by colleagues, initially to the dean of research and then to the BBSRC itself. But because the proposal was confidential, he was investigated by the BBSRC for passing it to the dean, he claims. He then went through a redundancy process, and a long subsequent process of attrition and stress resulted in Nick’s being hospitalised with a pulmonary embolism. Nick laments the gradual impression that his complaints weren’t being taken seriously and his feeling of being treated as less than human.

Babak Babakinejad was the research lead on the now disbanded OpenAg (Open Agriculture) project at MIT’s Media Lab (formerly sponsored by Jeffrey Epstein). The project was an open-source food computer meant to revolutionise the hydroponic growth of food, and MIT claimed (falsely) that it was deployed in a refugee camp. Babak queried the legitimacy of the claims and alleged that waste containing many times the legal limit of nitrogen was being dumped into groundwater, potentially contaminating private wells. For Babak, the worst low was when, while on medical leave after suffering panic attacks, his attorney reported that the MIT lawyer told him, “Good luck to his career if he decides to sue MIT”.

Even so, Babak is taking legal action, as is Nick. Babak rejected an offered settlement, in part because he didn’t want to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). As a result, part of Babak’s story has been reported in The New York Times, which led to a journal retracting an OpenAg article. NDAs are used to protect the guilty, but it is possible to refuse them: our social scientist simply refused to sign and held out until her university agreed to settle anyway.

All four of us reported alleged wrongdoing that affected our work – work that we cared about, with colleagues we liked. Nick advises other academics to “think very carefully before whistleblowing”, but, personally, he has no regrets. He was forced to leave academia, but now has a business making and repairing guitars.

Babak is pursuing his expensive and time-consuming legal action on principle, not because he has to. A friend of his recently died in a road traffic accident, and he realised that, because life is transient, he wants no regrets.

The social science professor suggests that while misconduct should always be reported, whistleblowers should not “waste time on more than one attempt to resolve the matter internally: if that doesn’t work go straight to the external regulator. Take legal action if necessary. Go public if necessary. And don’t stop until something is done. You might not be able to win – the odds are you won’t – but no job is worth a broken spirit.” She continues her research elsewhere and has just published a major book.

As for me, I did not pursue a constructive dismissal claim. A colleague warned HR of my intention and her intervention secured me a year’s research leave, during which I resigned and reignited my passion for my work in a more supportive environment. Apart from the release from being bullied, it is tremendously invigorating to meet new colleagues, to have new ideas, and to remember how much of a privilege it is to be an academic.

The powerful protect each other and resist being held to account. They will sacrifice the well-being of whistleblowers to avoid scrutiny and challenge. Our social scientist believes that an independent body to oversee complaints about bullying, particularly by senior managers, is essential.

She is right, but we should welcome the fact that England’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, which has just completed its passage through Parliament, bans universities from entering into NDAs relating to complaints about sexual misconduct, abuse or harassment, or other forms of bullying and harassment. Unfortunately, this still leaves plenty of scope for their misuse; much of what I have discussed here would not be covered.

Without full legal protection, we cannot know what will next be brushed under the carpet – and at what personal cost to whistleblowers.

Mark Geoghegan is the Roland Cookson professor of engineering materials at Newcastle University.

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