Cancer center lost federal grant funds, but researchers accuse administrators of sabotage
By Melissa Lee Phillips | March 6, 2006
Thirty-one cancer center employees at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe have lost their jobs. University officials say the decision was a simple case of soft money running out, but two of the closed center's research professors claim that the firings are the result of a lengthy clash between ASU administrators and the former director of the Cancer Research Institute (CRI), chemistry professor George Robert Pettit.
"Since Dr. Pettit is a tenured professor of long-standing here, it's not very easy to just fire him," John Knight, a former associate research professor who lost his job at CRI at the end of January, told The Scientist. "So they've been ratcheting up the pressure over the last 18 months, trying to more or less force him to resign."
According to ASU vice president of public affairs Virgil Renzulli, however, the recent firings have nothing to do with Pettit's tense history with ASU administration. When large grants from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were not renewed, ASU was forced to fire the employees, Renzulli told The Scientist. "There was no advantage to the university in seeing that lab close down."
Of the 31 employees fired, Renzulli said, 14 were full-time researchers, three were part-time researchers with appointments in other labs, seven were students who will move into other labs, and seven were support staff who will likely be offered other positions at ASU.
According to Knight, "there's been an ongoing quarrel" between Pettit and ASU president Michael Crow, who took office in 2002. In 2005, Pettit was fired as director of CRI and removed from an endowed chair after an external lawyer found that he made defamatory statements about another faculty member. In a lawsuit filed against ASU and its administrators, Pettit claimed that the real reason for his removal was retaliation for blowing the whistle on university officials who mishandled contracts and patent applications.
In January 2005, CRI was moved to ASU's new Biodesign Institute and renamed the Center for Cancer Research. Then, in September 2005, provost Milton Glick suspended Pettit's ability to apply for grants or seek outside donations because of lab safety violations and confidential personnel issues, George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute, told The Scientist.
"There were 500 safety violations in that lab and there were personnel issues and, essentially, the lab was out of compliance," Renzulli told The Scientist. "They were not allowed to apply for other funding until those issues were taken care of."
But suspending Pettit's ability to apply for funding ruined the center's chances to continue research after the NCI and NOAA grants were canceled, according to Thomas Smith, a former associate research professor at the center. "In the past, when they've had breaks in the funding, [Pettit] has always been able to make up the difference with private donations," Smith said. "He wasn't able to do that this time because of the fact that he was prohibited from approaching these private sources."
According to Knight, the safety violations were a ploy to tie Pettit's hands. "Without coming out and saying as much, [the safety inspectors] implied that they were told to find enough violations that could be used as an excuse to close us down," Knight said.
By December 2005, the safety violations had been corrected, Renzulli said, but "some of the other issues were not." State law prohibits administrators from discussing these issues without Pettit's permission, Poste said. Pettit did not respond to requests for an interview.
According to Knight, one of these "other" issues was that administrators told Pettit to meet with Poste whenever requested, and Pettit has refused to do so. "Pettit would refuse to go to the meeting and so Poste would report Pettit as being uncooperative. And the university administration would say, 'Well, you're not getting your funding back until you're more cooperative,'" Knight said. There was "a lot of just plain spite involved."
"Pettit has been an absolute giant in the field of developing new leads for cancer chemotherapeutic agents," said Amos Smith of the University of Pennsylvania. "It's just a crying shame that something couldn't have been done? to get something sorted out."
Melissa Lee Phillips
Links within this article
M. L. Phillips, "Cancer researcher sues university," The Scientist, September 29, 2005.
George Robert Pettit
Center for Cancer Research