An inventor-led research project with the potential to save lives was deliberately botched by two Manchester University academics. Evidence was faked, funders and industrial partners were misled, and the university’s subsequent internal investigation simply swept financial and research fraud further under the carpet.
Those are just some of the disturbing claims of inventor Bill Courtney, who feels he has been bullied and threatened for speaking out.
Bill’s version of events – and it’s a long and exhaustively detailed version – can be found here.
Essentially, inventor and former physics teacher Bill Courtney came up with an idea for a ‘smart’ vehicle bumper using a shock-absorbing liquid that would soften on impact with pedestrian legs, but harden for all other impacts.
In 2000, a consortium of Bill (under his trading name of Cheshire Innovation), the University of Manchester and the automotive division of Dow Chemicals won £250,000 of UK government funding to build and test a prototype bumper made to Bill’s designs.
It all started to go wrong, claims Bill, when one of the Manchester University academics grew jealous of the media attention Bill was attracting.
This, again according to Bill, set off a train of events that included:
– An 18-month delay before the research project began.
– The creation of false evidence to suggest that Bill’s bumpers would not work.
– Failure to deliver any usable research data to Dow, who therefore could not build and test a prototype within the required time-frame.
– The closure of the project in 2004, with Bill’s idea dismissed as unworkable and Bill criticised personally.
Much of that might be written off as project management incompetence. But Bill is convinced he has evidence of much graver wrongdoings.
Research fraud allegation
To justify ending the project, Manchester University academics claimed in their report to the funding body – the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) – that Bill’s bumpers were ineffective. This claim was backed up by research papers that the academics presented at conferences in the USA.
But according to Bill, that research was carried out against his wishes and those of Dow Chemicals, breached confidentiality agreements, and was manipulated to ensure negative results.
It later emerged that EPSRC had been informed of a review of research ostensibly carried out by Dow Chemicals, also showing that Bill’s bumper technology was flawed. That review, Bill claims, was a work of fiction. Dow had never been sent any data to work with, so there could not have been any research.
(It should be made clear that Bill completely exonerates Dow Chemicals. They played no part in any alleged deceits and were unaware of what was being done in their name.)
Financial irregularity allegation
Bill Courtney alleges that expenses were claimed by Manchester University academics for, among other things, arranging a fictitious event for the automobile industry, and trips to Dow Chemicals UK headquarters that were never made.
Bill had been appointed lead partner for the project by the Department for Transport. When he suspected fraud, he requested copies of relevant financial documents from the University. He did not get them.
His allegation of fraud was later dismissed by the University on the grounds that as the research was acceptable to the EPSRC, any discrepancies in the funding claims were also acceptable under EPSRC rules. (!!!)
The ‘discrepancies’ added up to many thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
Bill has attempted to press his charges of research fraud and financial irregularity. All that has happened – to cut short a long and ongoing story – is that the University of Manchester has closed ranks in an attempt to thwart, silence and intimidate him.
For example, in a tactic similar to recent attempts to silence NHS whistleblowers, Bill received threats from Manchester University’s solicitors.
Bill has discovered that there are very few places for whistleblowers to go where universities are concerned.
EPSRC seem uninterested in the charge of misuse of public funds; the university has investigated and found itself blameless; the EPSRC agreed, somewhat supinely, to accept the University’s findings; and the then Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, ruled that he was unable to intervene.
At one point the university appointed an ‘independent’ chairman to resolve the dispute between the two principal academics on one side and Dow Chemicals and Bill on the other. But it emerged that this chairman was a close research colleague of one of the academics. As Bill drily states: ‘No Dow representative attended meetings after this discovery.’
As Bill puts it: ‘There appears to be no mechanism for dealing with Universities that refuse to address research fraud.’
So with great reluctance and his money running out, Bill took the only option left to him. He published all his evidence on the internet – which is where we found it.
A further, sad irony: the stress of fighting Manchester University caused Bill’s health to suffer and his eyesight deteriorated. He had difficulty crossing busy roads. He was knocked down by a car, and in his words: ‘The issue [of developing a safer bumper] became personal’.
Questions to answer
Let’s be frank. All the evidence we have so far comes from Bill Courtney. This is why we have to be careful what we say. But Bill has been scrupulous in presenting third-party documents that support his version of events.
Our view is that Bill’s case raises very serious questions that need answering by an independent, impartial body. Letting Manchester University act as its own judge and jury is highly unsatisfactory and unjust.
Recent events – Mid Stafford, other NHS trusts, Hillsborough, Savile, the LibDem sex pest scandal – suggest that chickens do eventually come home to roost.
It might therefore be a smart move for the University of Manchester to open up this case to the genuinely independent investigation it appears never to have had, and to show some transparency in a matter of considerable public, academic and commercial interest.
This is a story we’ll be staying with, so there will be more later.
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