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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2002

Top Scientist Departing Canada

Josef Penninger, one of Canada's top scientists, is leaving the country because the University of Toronto and its largest affiliated hospital, the University Health Network, failed to act in a timely and decisive manner to deal with unfounded allegations made against him and his lab.

A brilliant immunologist who gained fame for landmark discoveries in the quest for cures for cancers, heart disease, osteoporosis and in unravelling the genetic elements in pain, the 37-year-old Penninger turned to senior officials of the university and the hospital to deal with what he felt were destructive allegations being made by Tak Mak, director of the Amgen Research Institute at UHN and the U of T, where Penninger worked and where he was a professor in the departmentof medical biophysics.

After repeated pleas for assistance produced no action, Penninger accepted a generous offer last fall from the Austrian Academy of Sciences to move his lab to new $30-million facilities that would be built for him in Vienna.

Penninger reported mixed feelings about leaving, happy with the opportunities in Austria, but unhappy he could not continue his work in Toronto and upset that his wife and family would have to be uprooted.

"It must be understood that the reputation of researchers is the most important they have, something I and the people associated with me have worked our whole lives to achieve. That such a reputation is attacked based on false accusations is simply not acceptable," Penninger said.

"I felt as if I had been driven out, and neither the university nor the hospital would do the right thing. I felt sad, but resigned. But when the allegations started affecting my students and my postdocs, I felt I must speak up."

Penninger went to California to see Roger Perlmutter, executive vice-president in charge of research and development for Amgen Inc., the American biotechnology company that funded the Amgen institute at UHN.

"Unlike officials at the hospital and the university, Roger responded immediately to my concerns," Penninger said, "setting up a human resources inquiry to probe allegations about how I was being treated by the director of the institute."

Although Penninger had already accepted the Austrian offer, Perlmutter also commissioned a panel of leading experts to review the negative allegations made about Penninger's lab.

The human resources review concluded Mak had made inappropriate remarks and that his behaviour was unacceptable. Amgen counselled Mak about his behaviour and warned him against any repeat behaviour.

The blue-ribbon scientific panel found no truth to allegations about problems in the work of the Penninger lab. The panel was unanimous in concluding "scientific rigour and good lab practices were evident and that allegations to the contrary are unfounded."

But the damage had been done. Penninger said an editor of Nature magazine, in which Penninger has published 30 articles, approached him at a scientific meeting to ask about rumours circulating about his lab. At other meetings colleagues questioned him and his students about what was going on.

"I asked Perlmutter and UHN's president and CEO Tom Closson for copies of the expert panel report so that it could be shared, and could dispel the false rumours and allegations," Penninger said. "Both promised me a copy, but retracted for reasons of protecting the confidentiality of proceedings."

At that point Penninger approached CAUT for assistance.

"He was angry that neither the hospital nor the university intervened when the problems first arose, putting him in the position that he felt he had no choice but to leave," said James Turk, CAUT executive director. "It was somewhat ironic it was a private American biotech company that took a decisive step to deal with the situation. But now, having been fully vindicated by the scientific panel, Penninger was being refused a copy of the report, the publication of which would, he felt, clear his name and even more importantly to him, remove any taint from his students and postdocs."

Penninger felt strongly about the harm to his students. "I will be okay, but I cannot allow my students and my postdocs, who have come from all over the world, to have their careers damaged by unfounded allegations," he said.

With CAUT's assistance, Penninger met with Closson who suggested mediation to resolve the issue of access to the scientific panel's report.

In the mediated agreement reached late last month, UHN agreed to send letters to the heads of funding agencies, research faculty at UHN, the Ontario Cancer Institute and the research heads of the other affiliated hospitals at U of T advising them of the scientific panel's unanimous conclusion that allegations against the Penninger lab were unfounded.

UHN also agreed to share the findings with U of T medical dean David Naylor, who would write to the funding agencies and individuals identified by Penninger expressing the dean's confidence in the scientific integrity of Penninger's lab.

Naylor indicated he would also state his view that "Josef Penninger's accomplishments have been recognized in multiple ways, including the awarding of a Canada Research Chair and early promotion to full professor. I personally count Josef among the most distinguished young scientists in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto."

UHN agreed that Closson would issue a written apology to all current and previous members of Penninger's lab whose reputations may have been adversely affected as a result of the unfounded allegations that were made.

Although Penninger will be leaving for Austria in January, UHN guaranteed the current location and space allocation for his lab until the end of 2003 to assure Penninger's students and postdocs can complete their studies under his direction.

The lab will be guaranteed access to all necessary facilities at UHN and will be given an operating budget of $1.1-million.

Any disputes will be resolved by Closson, failing which either party has access to an external, independent arbitration process funded by UHN.

On all academic matters Penninger will report directly and solely to Naylor.

Penninger's departure coincides with the end of the Amgen Research Institute. Founded in 1993 by Amgen Inc., together with UHN and U of T, the institute was to be funded by Amgen at $10-million annually until 2008.

Six hundred applicants had vied for the six scientist jobs at the institute headed by Mak. Penninger, a postdoctoral student in Mak's lab, was one of them.

Only one of the six scientists remains.

"It's a shame the university and hospital administrations did not step in before the situation got to where it did," Turk said. "We are going to continue to have problems like this until university administrations more boldly defend faculty members in affiliated hospitals and research institutions."