Is a top research charity right in withdrawing grant to pioneering cancer geneticist accused of bullying?

By: | Published: September 4, 2018 2:04 AM

The Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest research-funding charities, has withdrawn a $4.5 million grant that it had awarded Nazneen Rahman, a top cancer geneticist.

Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest research-funding charities (Image: Webiste)

The Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest research-funding charities, has withdrawn a $4.5 million grant that it had awarded Nazneen Rahman, a top cancer geneticist. Rahman was being investigated internally at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London—a public-funded research institute—over alleged bullying of fellow scientists and other staff members. Wellcome’s action follow in the wake of the charity adopting a strict anti-bullying and anti-harassment policy. While the ICR found some of the charges meriting a disciplinary hearing, Rahman resigned in July this year and the hearing was cancelled as a result. Both ICR and Wellcome, as per a report in Nature, endorse strict anti-bullying stands. Bullying, and other such harassment at the workplace, should indeed be treated as serious offences. But there is a cost to losing one of the top minds in cancer research through actions such as revoking funds.

In fact, the Rahman episode resurrects a question asked in l’affaire Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and lately, in the post-Weinstein exposes: How to think of a genius’s existing and potential work in the light of her/his infractions serious or small? Going a step ahead, were Einstein’s borderline racist thoughts manifest during his lifetime, where would have theoretical physics been standing if he never got the opportunities he did as a result? Or, what if a James Watson was made an “unperson”—his own words in an interview with The Financial Times—before he and Francis Crick could discover the double-helical structure of the DNA because of his indefensible racist outlook? How cutting funds to the Rahman-led research at ICR will unravel is a difficult wager. It may set cancer research back significantly. It is equally possible that someone from her team or competing researchers elsewhere will more than make good the loss. Some would argue that there was need for nuance—Rahman’s bullying was harmful, but was it to the same degree as a Polanski’s abuse of a 13-year-old?

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