Arise Sir Richard, Emperor of Imperial

Sir Richard Sykes

We’re simple folk out here in the country. Meet a bloke who has the word ‘Professor’ in front of his name and we naturally think of some amnesiac academic who solves a couple of quadratic equations while chatting to his fellow passengers on the bus.

Professor Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College, and the ultimate driving force behind the Wye Concordat, is not that man. The son of a Yorkshire carpenter, Sykes put himself through night school in order to gain scientific qualifications. His talents were not confined to the academic world however. In 1972 he joined Glaxo and, except for a five year period in the US, stayed with the company until taking the rectorship of Imperial in 2002. In 1993 then simple Professor Sykes became the chief executive and started to show the kind of hunger for growth and power normally more associated with aggressive businessmen than bright academics.

Glaxo was a bit player when Sykes joined it in 1972. When he left, to join Imperial in 2002, it was a major international force, achieved in no small part through ‘merger’. The first was the £9billion takeover of the old, and somewhat sluggish giant of the pharmaceutical world Wellcome. That deal made the combined company one of the world’s ten biggest drug companies. A further merger, with SmithKline Beecham in January 2000, produced the single biggest pharmaceutical concern, now called GSK (for GlaxoSmithKline), and bearing the slogan, ‘Do more, feel better, live longer’. All through buying its drugs, naturally.


The £24-a-pop flu treatment the NHS wouldn’t buy: Sykes was furious

Not that buying them was plain sailing. In 1999, around the time Richard Sykes decided to quit for the Imperial job in 2002, its shares underperformed the market by 27 per cent, and the company missed some very ambitious profit targets. Worse, it came a severe cropper with a drug he personally championed, Relenza, a treatment for flu. The Prof campaigned in person for Relenza to be available freely through the National Health Service. The government looked at the cost and realised ‘free’ was actually rather expensive. Glaxo wanted a mere £24 per treatment in 1999. The health department said no, on the advice of its own expert body, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, much to the relief of the British Medical Association which wanted the drug blacklisted from the NHS on the grounds GPs could be swamped by demands for it every time someone developed a snuffle.

Richard Sykes went ballistic, and embarked on a lengthy battle with the then health secretary, Frank Dobson, at one point even making noises about taking his entire company to the US in protest. Members of the Wye Future Group may also be interested to learn of one other tactic he threatened: he waved the prospect of a judicial review in the government’s face over the issue too.

Richard Sykes has friends in high places. Peter Mandelson had placed the Prof on his competitiveness advisory group, the think tank that developed Labour’s pro-business economic strategy. He also sat on the Council of Science and Technology, which reported directly to Tony Blair.

Frank Dobson, never an easy member of the government, was later replaced by Alan Milburn. Prof Sykes continued going up on the Whitehall inside track, landing a seat on the task force set up to look at the global power of the pharmaceutical companies. Funnily enough, this eventually sided with the firms over issues such as the copyrighting of expensive anti-Aids drugs in the third world. And Mr Milburn later decided Relenza should be available on the NHS, though only in very limited circumstances. The prospect of bird flu has driven up Relenza sales, but I wouldn’t try stocking up yourself. In spite of the panic, Relenza is not a cure for flu of any kind, but can help treat bird flu if it is taken within the first two days of infection. However, as you can read here, it is not the preferred drug in the case of pandemic. While Sir Richard looks well on course for a seat in the House of Lords, it is likely to come from his academic activities, not as the saviour of the world from sneezing chickens.

Even that academic career looks a little troublesome. The one thing you have to say about Richard Sykes is he will never shy away from an argument, and often appears to relish them. Barely into his new job he stirred a furore by telling the Financial Times that ‘London University has to be rationalised, I would like this to be the University of London. But that would take time.’ Many read that as a takeover warning for UCL and LSE among others.

In 2004 the chancellors of some of the UK’s newer universities demanded his head when he called some of them ‘third rate’. Luton was singled out for particular attack. ‘A penny spent here [Imperial] is a hell of a lot better than a penny spent at Luton for the economy,’ he said in an interview with the FT, clearly his favourite paper. In the same interview he criticised government adult education policy as ‘bums on seats’ and one which would not give the UK the edge over its global competitors. He has also been a vigorous supporter of tuition fees, claiming that anyone who wants a science degree from Imperial should really be paying £10,000 a year to get it.

Outrage in Luton

Outrage in Luton. This time Sir Richard ended up apologising

With fellow university rectors and chancellors demanding his ejection from the higher education funding body Hefce over his slur on Luton, Sir Richard did something no-one expected: he apologised. Since this appears to be a rare event, we publish it in full here…

My unfortunate allusion to mathematics at Luton was intended to illustrate the diversity and differences — in mission, purpose and courses offered — within our higher education system and the way they are funded.

The unreported part of my comment on that issue was ‘Universities shouldn’t all be treated the same. A few stand on the international stage and need to be funded differently’.

Certainly, I intended no slight or damage to Luton and I have since made this point both to the vice chancellor, Professor Les Ebdon and to Sir Robin Bingham, chancellor of Luton.

It didn’t stay quiet for long. Around the same time that he was inflaming opinion in Wye, Sir Richard was embarked upon creating a storm among a much more influential chattering class: London’s universities. After months of veiled warnings, Imperial announced that it was to negotiate its withdrawal from the University of London, the federal umbrella organisation which currently awards degrees for everything from Imperial to UCL, the LSE, Royal Academy of Music and King’s College, among others. The long-term implication of Imperial’s decision to quit UL are unclear, but they could well result in the organisation’s collapse, and perhaps the revival of those takeover rumours for some of its peers that were circulating so vigorously when he arrived in 2002.

What drives this man? He is fond of making visionary statements in which he urges the nation to embrace science in the cause of economic gain. But he appears to have little interest in the agricultural sciences, which may explain why Wye has fared so badly since his arrival. It’s also clear he is fond of power and money, with easy access to the upper echelons of government. To the surprise of many, he is the best-paid academic head of any university in the country, pocketing a salary of £350,000, some £115,000 more than the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University. His predecessor, Sir Ron, now Lord, Oxborough took home half Sir Richard’s current salary.

Nor do the lofty statements always match up to reality. Before the gigantic merger to create GSK, for example, he reassured employees that the deal was ‘about vision — not a cost-cutting exercise’. Less than two years later the newly combined behemoth had shed more than 15,000 jobs and was embroiled in deep and expensive arguments about two wonder drugs developed during the Sykes era. Paxil, which is used to ‘treat’ depression, is now the subject of a class action law suit among GSK investors in the US who allege that the company concealed problems with the drug and issued ‘false or misleading public statements’. The case takes in part of the time when Prof Sykes was at the helm of the firm, covering share deals between February 2001 and August 2004. The suit claims GSK ‘improperly concealed deficiencies’ with the drug.

A second product, Lotronex, was withdrawn from the general market in the US after seventy cases of adverse reactions and five deaths. The problems have not gone away. Last year the BBC cited GSK as the third-worst performer in its Global 30 index of the world’s biggest companies, and added it got ‘a nasty note from the US Food and Drug Administration saying it wants to restrict the use of the company’s best selling Advair asthma drug’. Advair sales added up to $1.3billion, a whopping 16 per cent of GSK’s drug revenues, in the third quarter last year.

But being at the summit of both British university and industrial life does have some odd perks. In 2004 Sir Richard was asked to head an inquiry into the financial services industry by the think-tank Tomorrow’s Company. His subsequent report, entitled Restoring Trust: Investment in the 21st Century (£150 a copy, I kid you not, from Tomorrow’s Company), delivered a typically thunderous call for financial services staff selling the likes of pensions and endowments to take a ‘Hippocratic oath’. This would be a binding code of behaviour that would guarantee the supply of accurate information to members of the public baffled by complex options couched in obscure language, the full implications of which may not be obvious from the outset.

Acquisitive and highly ambitious university bosses who often appear to be little more than aggressive businessmen wearing an academic gown do not, of course, need to sign any such oath. Which seems a shame.


Born Yorkshire, 1942. Holds a Ph.D in Microbial Biochemistry from Bristol University, and honorary degrees and awards from institutions both in the UK and overseas. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and Academy of Medical Sciences, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society of Chemistry, Royal Pharmaceutical Society, Royal College of Pathologists and Royal College of Physicians.

He is a Fellow of Imperial College School of Medicine, King’s College London, a Fleming Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, and, an Honorary Fellow of the University of Wales, Cardiff and the University of Central Lancashire.

He was awarded Honorary Citizenship of Singapore in 2004 for his contribution to the development of the country’s biomedical sciences industry.

He is a member of the ‘Great Unelected’ list of Red Pepper magazine.

Outside interests

Rio Tinto plc & Rio Tinto Limited Non-Executive Director
Lonza Group Limited Non-Executive Director
Natural History Museum Trustee
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Trustee
Apax Partners Limited Healthcare Adviser
Medeus Holdings Ltd Non-Executive Director
Metabometrix Ltd Non-Executive Director
Bioscience Leadership Council Chairman
Biomedical Sciences International Advisory Council, Singapore Chairman
EDBs Biomedical Science Investment Fund Non-Executive Director


About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome, Pieter Vos in Amsterdam, adaptions of the Sarah Lund stories in Copenhagen, and versions of Shakespeare worked for Audible.
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