Fiona Watt’s conduct towards Medical Research Council staff was the subject of a whistleblowing investigation
The head of the Medical Research Council was at the centre of a bullying investigation that culminated in her apologising for how she treated staff at the funder, Research Professional News can reveal.
Following enquiries by Research Professional News, UK Research and Innovation confirmed that in December 2020 it received an anonymous complaint of bullying against MRC executive chair Fiona Watt (pictured) that triggered a whistleblowing investigation. Research Professional News has seen evidence that the investigation, carried out by an independent organisation, was completed by May 2021 and concluded there was a need to take action.
Watt has been executive chair of the MRC, the second richest of the UK’s publicly funded research councils, since 2018. She also sits on the executive committee of UKRI, the arm’s length government body that oversees the MRC and more generally sets the direction for the entire research sector.
UKRI said it accepted the investigation’s findings and that “appropriate action has been taken”. The funder said the details of the investigation and the actions taken are confidential, but Watt confirmed she had apologised to multiple people as a result.
“I engaged fully with the investigation, accepted the findings and offered written apologies to the individuals involved,” Watt told Research Professional News.
“I would like to apologise to them again publicly. I was devastated to learn that my actions and behaviours had affected colleagues in a negative way.”
A source who gave evidence to the investigation told Research Professional News they themselves had experienced what they described as “bullying” by Watt. The individual, who wishes to remain anonymous, said the culture at the MRC was “toxic” and claimed Watt’s conduct included “classic bullying behaviour” such as isolating or publicly undermining colleagues.
‘Bullying not tolerated at UKRI’
Watt said she has “undertaken an extensive personal improvement plan to address the issues that were raised” and that in the past she has been a whistleblower herself and “supported other colleagues to speak up when something is not right”.
She added: “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.”
Ottoline Leyser, chief executive of UKRI, said: “It is profoundly upsetting that people have experienced this behaviour and I am grateful to those who have taken the difficult step of speaking up. Bullying is not tolerated at UKRI.”
Tackling negative research culture, such as preventing bullying and harassment, has been a key priority for Leyser, who is one of only a few senior figures at the funder thought to have seen the full findings of the investigation into Watt’s conduct.
Watt has remained in post following the investigation’s conclusion. Her current term is due to end in early 2022, after which she is due to leave the organisation. In July, it was announced that after leaving UKRI, Watt would become the director of the European Molecular Biology Organization.
While on secondment to UKRI, Watt also maintains a professorship at King’s College London. Research Professional News understands the university supported the whistleblowing investigation.
The source who gave evidence to the investigation questioned whether allowing Watt to stay on was the right decision. “If you don’t send a message [in situations like this], it does create a culture where people think there’s no point reporting it, because nothing will happen,” they said.
Leyser said UKRI had taken the original complaint “extremely seriously” and had “worked hard to ensure that appropriate action has been taken in line with UKRI policy”.
In a statement the funder said: “There is no place for bullying and harassment at UKRI or in our research and innovation communities. We are committed to ensuring we continuously improve our culture.”
“We have addressed the issues raised as part of this process and we have also used the experience to strengthen our ongoing work to eliminate bullying and harassment.”