The Academic Senate, St Andrews’ supreme authority, has asked Alistair Moffat to delineate his University and personal business after the University Rector sent a letter via his solicitors to two scientists at University College London accusing them of committing libel.
In a letter seen by The Saint sent to the two evolutionary geneticists at UCL on 18 March, Professor Louise Richardson, University Principal, said that a specially-convened panel had concluded that the wording of part of the letter was “contrary to the principles of academic freedom and honest scientific debate in a matter of public interest.”
The Principal wrote: “As freedom of academic inquiry is the core principle of any university the Senate strongly disapproves of such action.” The Saint has not seen the letter sent by Moffat’s solicitors on 3 September 2012.
The condemnation comes after The Saint reported in March that an academic dispute had erupted between Moffat and geneticists after the Rector claimed that his company, BritainsDNA, had discovered the grandson of Eve and nine descendants of the Queen of Sheba.
However, what started as an academic dispute sparked threats of legal action from Moffat. When Professor David Balding and Professor Mark Thomas, the two recipients of the Principal’s letter, heard Mr Moffat’s comments about research conducted by BritainsDNA on the Today programme in July 2012, they wrote a letter expressing their concerns over the accuracy of his claims.
They told The Saint that, rather than attempting to engage in scientific debate, Mr Moffat had resorted to legal threats to silence the scientists. Dr Vincent Plagnol, also a geneticist at UCL, said: “Any type of legal threat is an ominous sign for an academic debate.” Professor Balding and Dr Plagnol told The Saint that they had felt intimidated by Mr Moffat’s threats and consulted the Provost at UCL.
However, Mr Moffat said (as The Saint reported on 7 March) his solicitors’ letter was a reaction to grossly defamatory comments. “It is a complete untruth to state that we used legal action to suppress or inhibit scientific debate in any way,” he said.
“Professor Balding defamed our company and we asked our solicitors to ask him not to repeat that defamation. That is all. We welcome debate, and while we disagree with Professor Thomas’ views profoundly, he is of course entitled to hold them. What he is not entitled to do is to state untruths, and that is what he has done.”
However, after the University received a number of letters and complaints from academic staff and leaders at UCL, a panel convened by the most senior member of the Academic Senate concluded that Mr Moffat was stifling academic debate, a finding that has been accepted by the Senate’s Business Committee.
Professor Richardson expressed her “regret” that the University was drawn into the matter, adding: “We wish to make clear, however, that the dispute is between you [Professor Thomas and Balding] and Mr Moffat in his capacity as a private businessman and the university has no locus in this dispute.”
She added: “The University of St Andrews expects all members of our community, whether they are staff, students or office holders, to respect fully the principle of academic freedom to promote unhindered academic inquiry at all times.”
Recent weeks have seen Mr Moffat and BritainsDNA thrown into the spotlight. Professor Mark Thomas openly lambasted Mr Moffat in a Guardian article and Nature wrote an editorial on libel reform and scientific debate, referring directly to the legal threats received by Professors Balding and Thomas.