Saskatoon

'This is a horror story': $100M U of S global food institute plagued by conflict

The University of Saskatchewan’s $100-million Global Institute for Food Security is operating under a cloud of suspicion, fear and open conflict, according to a series of interviews and an internal report obtained by CBC News.

Global Institute for Food Security in need of urgent reforms, says report, staff

When launched in 2012, the goal of the Global Institute for Food Security was to translate research into food. (Tory Gillis/CBC)

The University of Saskatchewan's $100-million Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) is operating under a cloud of suspicion, fear and open conflict, according to a series of interviews and internal documents obtained by CBC News. 

File photo of Maurice Moloney, CEO of the Global Institute for Food Security. (Rosalie Woloski/CBC)

One report from an external consultant warns the host of problems could lead to "complete disintegration" of the institute. 

Much of the criticism revolves around CEO Maurice Moloney, recruited to the post in 2014 after overseeing top research institutes in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. But most say the problems run far deeper.

"It's absolutely bizarre. This is a horror story," said Tim Sharbel, a world-leading expert in seed biology, one of four "research leads" of GIFS teams, and one of Moloney's harshest critics.

The institute attracts top scientists and grant money to the university. It's a significant contributor to Saskatchewan's economy and its researchers are working hard to decrease world hunger.

Neither Moloney, GIFS board chair Lorne Hepworth, U of S President Peter Stoicheff nor U of S vice-president of research Karen Chad returned CBC News interview requests.

A U of S official said in an email that many reforms are underway, including the creation of a task force, but critics say little has changed.

'Key relationships have deteriorated,' says report

The institute was conceived over lunch in 2011 by former Premier Brad Wall, former U of S President Peter MacKinnon and then-Potash Corp CEO Bill Doyle, Doyle has said.

It was launched soon after with a $15 million contribution from the provincial government and $35 million from PotashCorp (now Nutrien). It has since grown into a $100 million operation.

Premier Brad Wall (left) helped launch a Global Institute for Food Security. He stands beside former U of S president Ilene Busch-Vishniac (middle) and former PotashCorp CEO Bill Doyle. (CBC)

But tensions have been escalating for the past two years, say critics.

Some research staff say they provided a letter to GIFS administration last September demanding action. They said team members are fleeing GIFS or being forced out because of Moloney and the toxic environment.

In the letter, obtained by CBC News, staff said there's been interference with their research funds. Requests for lab time and materials have been rejected without explanation. Confidential data has been leaked to competitors. Rumours have been spread to pit staff against each other.

"There is a general feeling that any pretext can be used to justify actions that seem unconscionable," states the letter.

The authors said they were suffering from exhaustion, panic attacks and depression. They didn't want to apply for long-term research grants or move their families to Saskatoon because of the uncertainty, according to the letter.

The Global Institute for Food Security is located at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. (CBC)

Staff said that shortly after they sent the the letter, GIFS leadership commissioned McGill University professor Dirk Schlimm to produce a report on the situation. Completed in December, it said the institute has the potential to answer key questions about how to feed the world's rapidly expanding population.

"Food security is a massive global problem and GIFS is at the forefront of solving it through advanced, ground-breaking research," states the eight-page report.

It also stated Moloney did a "superb" job expanding the institute's scope and was a "visionary" fundraiser and ambassador.

He feels he can do whatever he wants.- Tim  Sharbel

However, the report also confirmed the complaints made in the letter and by individual team members. Moloney is seen by many as an "absentee manager" with "little or no reporting back on his activities," the report states.

When he is present, some staff said Moloney has a "micromanaging leadership style" and controls information between staff and the board, according to the report.

There's a deep conflict over whether to run GIFS like a "top-down" corporation or a research institute respecting academic freedom, states the report.

And no one knows who's ultimately in charge, the report says. Some staff think it's U of S vice-president of research, others say it's the institute's CEO, while others say it's the scientists who produce the results, the Schlimm report says.

"...key relationships have deteriorated with the consequence of a high degree of dysfunction," states the report. "If left unaddressed, the current situation could lead to complete disintegration."

Moloney to step down in November but may work on 'super-cluster' project

Several months after the report was issued, staff interviewed say they were relieved to hear Moloney was leaving.

That relief turned to anger when they learned the changes won't take place until the end of November. They're also afraid Moloney may not actually leave.

In his farewell post in May on the GIFS website, Moloney said the goals he set out to achieve with the institute "have been realized" and he "will assist with succession planning and identification of the next CEO for GIFS." 

Tim Sharbel is the research chair in seed biology at the Global Institute for Food Security. (Submitted by Tim Sharbel)

He said he hopes to continue working on the university's prestigious $200-million "protein super-cluster" project, which is closely tied to GIFS.

"He feels he can do whatever he wants," Sharbel said.

Sharbel, like the other team leaders, was recruited and promised multi-million dollar budgets for equipment, labs and staff.

Sharbel said those promises were not kept. He said Moloney then told him salaries and other expenses would be deducted from his budget. He and another team leader would also be charged $20,000 per month for lab rental. When Sharbel protested, he said Moloney withheld research funds. The report detailed these and other disputes.

Fellow team leader and renowned digital agriculture specialist Dave Schneider called Moloney brilliant, but said in his opinion "prevailing standards of scientific ethics and due process" have been repeatedly ignored in Scharbel's case and others.

Schneider said an institute's CEO is not supposed to have any control over scientists' research funding. No such safeguards existed at GIFS, he said.

Schneider said staff had little recourse because Moloney was given "unilateral" power.

"It is what it is. That's how the system was designed," Schneider said.

No official harassment complaints, says U of S

A U of S communications officer emailed a response to CBC News questions.

They say the decision for Moloney to step down was "mutual," but declined to say whether he'll receive any form of payment.

They said the university received no harassment complaints under the "Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Policy" and would act swiftly if there was one.

They've been "engaging consultants and advisors in conflict resolution, leadership coaching, and mentoring." A task force has been created, with former interim provost Ernie Barber serving as an advisor, stated the email.

Most interviewed were skeptical a solution can be found.

U of S Faculty Association grievance officer Patricia Farnese has worked with Sharbel and others to press their case to U of S administrators. She said a lot of powerful people created the current situation and won't easily change.

"You can draw your own conclusions as to whether this was taken seriously or not," she said. "I do know that it's been frustrating for our members."

Clarifications

  • Some research staff say they provided a letter to GIFS administration last September demanding action. A previous version of this story stated the support was unanimous.
    Mar 25, 2019 11:15 AM CT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

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