06 Mar 2010   |   News

Former dean: ‘mistake’ was made, but dismissal ‘out of proportion’

Karl Tryggvason, former Dean of Research at Karolinska, admits a ‘mistake’ but tells Science|Business it wasn’t a sacking offence.

Prof. Karl Tryggvason. Image courtesy Karolinska Institutet.

Karl Tryggvason, Karolinska Institutet’s former Dean of Research says his dismissal as dean over a contested prize award is “out of proportion.” While it was a ‘mistake’ to write and offer the prize committee his views, he did not exert undue influence or violate conflict-of-interest principles. 

The dismissal was announced March 2 by the Karolinska, which also selects and names the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology. According to the Institute’s President Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson, Tryggvason had broken the institute’s rules by exerting “undue influence” over the award of another, unrelated prize – the Prominent Professors programme – which Tryggvason oversaw.

Tryggvason responded, in interviews and emails to Science Business:

“The committee had in the final round chosen 35 applicants to be funded, but two of them had to be disqualified, as one was working at a foreign university (Harvard) and the other had significant recruitment funding at KI. There was a short list of applicants who were close to the 35 and I gave my opinion about two of them, who I considered the strongest scientists who could replace the two who were disqualified. This was a mistake according to Karolinska's conflict of interest rules,” he said.

Tryggvason added, “However, it is common practice in many other places that an independent expert evaluation committee asks for, or gets suggestions from the dean, of other high-level investigators that they can consider or not consider. In this case, this was not asked for, and I do not know if my suggestions were the reason for the election of the two individuals, or if the committee members themselves came to the conclusion.”

“Considering the high academic level and enormous experience of the committee members in evaluation of science, I find it difficult to believe that my suggestions were the only reason for why these two individuals were chosen,” he added. “But, this was an unnecessary doing on my part.”

Tryggvason said that, contrary to the Karolinska’s assertion, he did in fact discuss procedures for handling conflict of interest rules by phone with committee chair Joe Goldstein, who is a professor of molecular genetics at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Texas and a Nobel laureate.

Goldstein, said Tryggvason, “is very well aware of conflict of interest rules. Thus, all committee members, who included Paul Nurse (President of Rockefeller University Trustees and Nobel laureate), Craig Thompson (Chairman of the Medical Board of HHMI) and Bengt Samuelsson (former President of KI and Nobel Laureate), ... are of course familiar with conflict of interest rules and practice of the scientific community, had to declare conflict of interest prior to the evaluation process and refrain from making judgment or participating in discussions about applicants who declared conflict. Two members declared conflict and they did not participate in the judgment of corresponding individuals.” He added that all the seven committee members are members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

“I had and have of course, full confidence in the evaluation work made by the outstanding members of the committee. They are no amateurs in science evaluation,” he added.

Tryggvason disputed claims by Wallberg-Henriksson in an interview with Science|Business that the grants process was not transparent, and the criteria by which the applicants were judged were not made clear. He said the criteria were usual for the evaluation of applicants for research grants in the field of medical research. He added that Goldstein had, “ensured that the process was handled in a[n] appropriate manner. In my opinion the committee made an excellent job as one could expect from such an outstanding group of people with expertise in various fields of medical research. They clearly sought for investigators who had reached a high academic level and who were either on the peak of the car[ee]r or strongly on the rise.”

Tryggvason emphasised he did not participate in the actual evaluation meetings, “As I should not influence the discussions according our conflict of interest rules. Thus, I myself did not deviate from the conflict of interest rules or practice of the scientific community.”

Asked whether he felt the situation with his dismissal as dean was handled appropriately by the Karolinska, Tryggvason said, “The President has the right to appoint and dismiss based on her own judgment and depending on the matter. In this case, the President made the judgment that my handling of the process, particularly with regard to making suggestions about the competence of two professors to be added to an existing list of 33, was inappropriate and not acceptable according to KI's conflict of interest rules.

Further, she made the judgment that my mistake was so serious that I should be dismissed. I wish not to comment here on whether or not this dismissal was reasonably justified. In my opinion this reaction was out of proportion.”

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