The abysmal response of the Salk Institute to accounts of gender discrimination in its midst

Last week news broke of a pair of lawsuits filed by two prominent female scientists alleging they had been subject to persistent gender discrimination by The Salk Institute, the storied independent research center in La Jolla, California, where they both work.

I obviously can’t speak to the validity of these specific charges – it’s not a trivial task to dissect the basis for the successes and failures of small numbers of individuals. But the accounts of Lundblad and Jones sound all too familiar: case studies of a system that we know from myriad individual stories and a bevy of rigorous studies to be systematically biased against women.

Lawsuits are complicated, obviously, and tend to bring out the worst in institutions. But, even given this, the responses of the Salk and its leaders to these charges have been incredibly disappointing.

In an initial statement issued on July 14th, the Salk coupled anodyne verbiage about their commitment to equality and diversity with a document listing “issues” with the careers of both Lundblad and Jones.

Amongst the Salk’s complaints were that, in the past decade, both Jones and Lundblad had “failed to publish a single paper in any of the most respected scientific publications (Cell, Nature and Science)” and that their annual productivity (measured in numbers of papers per year) was below the median of their colleagues.

There are so many things wrong with this statement it is hard to know where to begin. First, counting publications is a horrible way to measure someone’s contributions to science – many fantastic scientists publish slowly and carefully, and a lot of highly “productive” labs publish a large number of worthless papers. Even worse, attempting to equate a scientist’s value to the number of papers they have in CellNature and Science (CNS) is pure bullshit. Everyone in science knows that getting papers into these journals is a brutally competitive lottery, based on an highly flawed system for projecting the quality and impact of a work, heavily impacted the perceived sexiness of the topic (hence the referral by many scientists to these as “glam journals”). There are plenty of people – myself included – who think that the system of review and editorial selection at these journals does not lead to their publishing best science – and to use this as the primary way of judging someone’s career is absurd.

There is also a deeply political aspect to getting papers into these journals, and many serious and outstanding scientists simply choose not to play the game. Crucially, exactly the same kind of “old boys club” effect that Jones and Lundblad cite as affecting their careers at the Salk also plays a role in selecting papers for these “top” journals. I will put aside the fact for now that this obsession with top journals by the Salk is perpetuating the toxic culture of the impact factor that many top Salk scientists (including its president) have derided. More directly relevant to this issue, in citing a poor record of CNS publications as the primary reason that Jones and Lundblad have not been rewarded as much as their male colleagues, they are not strengthening their case – rather the Salk is confessing that it relies on a biased system to judge their scientists, precisely what Jones and Lundblad are alleging.  

The Salk was pretty harshly – and justifiably – trashed for their stance over the ensuing few days, leading to a second statement from the Salk’s president Elizabeth Blackburn, which I repeat here in full:

I’m saddened that an institute as justly revered as the Salk Institute is being misrepresented by accusations of gender discrimination. Our stellar scientists, both female and male, hail from 46 countries around the world and all bring their unique and valuable perspective to our efforts to unravel biological mysteries and discover cures.

I am a female scientist. I have been successfully pursuing scientific research with passion and energy for my entire career. I am not blind to the history of a field that has, unfortunately and sometimes unconsciously, favored males. But I would never preside over an Institute that in any way condoned, openly or otherwise, the marginalizing of female scientists. The Salk Institute and some of the greatest female scientific minds in the world have always worked together for their mutual benefit and the benefit of humanity.

At every place where I have had a leadership voice—the World Economic Forum, the President’s Council, the American Society for Cell Biology, the American Association for Cancer Research, our nation’s prestigious universities, and many committees—I have emphasized diversity and inclusion. That’s an undebatable tenet of mine. Important biological research that is going to impact humanity and improve the condition of our people and our planet is difficult work. Thus we need the best minds in the world— regardless of race, gender or nationality—to help us discover solutions.

This is what we do at the Salk Institute and what we will continue to do: work together to help people live longer, healthier lives.

I have tremendous respect for Blackburn as a scientist and a person, and her words passionately defending diversity are nice. But, to be blunt, this statement is pathetic.

First of all, the fact that Blackburn emphasized diversity and inclusion in Davos or anywhere else is of no consequence. She is now the leader of an academic institution and what matters now is not words but tangible steps to eliminate discrimination at her institution. And the idea that she would “never preside over an Institute that in any way condoned, openly or otherwise, the marginalizing of female scientists” is risible. The marginalization of female and many other types of scientists is not a rare, isolated facet of specific institutions – it is an endemic, universal problem in science.

Almost by definition every leader of every institute is presiding over an organization that participates in the marginalization of women in science, because it is intrinsic to operating in the world we live in today. The Salk would have to be an unprecedentedly remarkable place if it were free of gender and other forms of discrimination. The question for Blackburn and other scientific leaders is not whether they condone discrimination, it is whether they are willing to confront the fact that it unequivocally does exist AT THEIR INSTITUTION, whether they endeavor recognize the specific ways it manifests AT THEIR INSTITUTION and whether they use their leadership position to take tangible action to eliminate it AT THEIR INSTITUTION. 

Instead of doing any of this, Blackburn would have us believe that any assertion of discrimination must be false simply because she would never be the leader of such an institution. Instead of dealing with the problem and instead of recognizing the bravery it took for Jones and Lundblad to put themselves forward in this way, Blackburn has publicly called them bad scientists and liars. And in doing so Blackburn joins a long list of institutional leaders who, when presented with evidence of discrimination at their institution attack the messengers, valuing their short-term interests of their institution at the expense of the long-term interests of science and people who carry it out.

For all her lofty rhetoric about the value of diversity, Blackburn has failed the acid test of promoting it.

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9 Comments

  1. ThrowAway
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I will just leave this mini clip here showing what Jones and Lundblad are going through. Shame on Salk.

    http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/visuals/video/94099198-132.html

  2. Eric
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    I guess my question is, what is the standard you would suggest to decide whether an institute needs to back off institutional funding support and/or shrink lab space provided for a faculty member who is not being successful?

    Salk has a (likely well-deserved) reputation here, and of course its history with Watson doesn’t help either. But that doesn’t mean that you can jump to conclusions and immediately assume that they’re out to screw over every female faculty in each individual case.

    You cherry-picked the quote about N/S/C articles, but these are the real reason for the Salk’s actions and subsequent lawsuit:

    Dr. Jones failed to obtain adequate grants funding to support laboratory staff and top scientific investigation, thus relying on the Institute to provide supplemental funding. She rarely took advantage of Salk’s Innovation Grants, applying only twice out of 19 opportunities. Her applications for non-government grants have been below the number for other faculty members. Her government funding ranks in the bottom quartile.

    Dr. Lundblad failed to obtain the grants that support laboratory staff and top scientific investigation, thus relying on the Institute to provide supplemental funding. She rarely took advantage of Salk’s Innovation Grants, applying only four times out of 19 opportunities. Her applications for non-government have been below the number for other faculty members. Her government funding ranks in the bottom quartile.

    Ultimately (and perhaps unfortunately) research institutions, particularly private non-university ones, have to make difficult decisions about supporting faculty who aren’t getting enough external funding to support their lab. Everything you wrote could be true, but it also could be that this isn’t a discrimination issue; I don’t think it’s fair to jump to either conclusion off the bat

    • DM
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      What’s the source of the above “real reasons” for Salk’s behavior?

    • Jone
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      If Salk uses its internal Innovation Grants as examples, they should give the distribution of how many times each faculty has applied (out of 19 opportunities). And perhaps a more important question is – who are on the review panel of the internal Innovation Grant? Who make the funding decisions?

      If you ever talk to anyone who has worked at Salk in the past decade or so, ask them who actually run that place. Who are the big four.

    • Matt
      Posted July 20, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      This.

      It’s fair to critique Salk of their methods of pushing unsuccessful researchers out of their organization, but that doesn’t qualify as gender discrimination.

      Your article talks nothing about Salk actually discriminating against gender, but rather having inappropriate standards for scientists that work at Salk. If both genders have to abide by those standards, this isn’t gender discrimination.

  3. Michael Taffe
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    I am a little surprised by the lack of commentary on this, you typically get a greater response on similarly important issues.

    Bravo.

    Your part in bold and your final paragraph are everything. We cannot move forward and make things better if we cannot let go of our fantasies that our best intentions and certain knowledge that we are the good people make our actions pure. Or make the impact of our actions (or inactions) pure.

    Eric: You cherry-picked the quote about N/S/C articles, but these are the real reason for the Salk’s actions and subsequent lawsuit:

    I suspect all parties will be engaging in vigorous cherry-picking of “real reasons” and statistics relevant to the treatment of various faculty members as this discussion continues. There is a very important point to be made which is the incremental accumulation of resources and how this contributes to career success as measured by C/N/S papers, extramural funding or anything else one wishes to deploy. It can be as direct as Institute support for staff or other research expenses. It can be as indirect as a decision about which very expensive shared equipment, personnel or other resources to invest in. It may be about the timing- bridge funding at a critical juncture may be more important than the same amount given as an “equity” defense at a different point in a career. The tail of disparities from years or decades ago are very long indeed when it comes to these sorts of things.

  4. Jo
    Posted July 21, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    This is the crux of the problem —

    “many fantastic scientists publish slowly and carefully, and a lot of highly “productive” labs publish a large number of worthless papers.”

    First, I’ll throw out a hypothesis. Women tend to want to publish slowly and carefully while men tend to be motivated more by conventional metrics of success — not universally, but my hypothesis is that these tendencies exist. And, I’ll add an observation — academic institutions have become dominated by metrics these past decades, to an absurd degree.

    Let’s say, for a moment, that these things were true. Another hypothesis is that men who want to publish slowly and carefully have a tougher time than other men who chase conventional metrics. The slow and careful scientists would need champions, mentors, people who believe in them along the way, often behind the scenes. But women don’t tend to find such people in science. Often, their supposed mentors prove more caustic than helpful. Or, an occasional quasi-champion might pat himself on the back for doing some small thing for some disadvantaged woman, and then justify being brutal in other aspects. So, without mentors and champions, a tendency to go against the prevailing metrics of success would be experienced by women as a complete mismatch for a system.

    But, let’s say, on the other hand, that the only valid metrics of success for scientists are the traditional numbers — places of publication and paper counts, those things that seem irrefutable because they can be quantified, like a football score. Then, anyone who does not successfully chase those metrics should not consider themselves a scientist. Does anyone really believe those numbers are not affected by inherent biases in all of the hidden facets that affect decisions? Beyond the various scientific studies that show clear bias in the evaluation of work when female names are on papers, many other things in an academic career are affected by behind the scenes champions or lack thereof — like access to students, lab space, teaching loads and even pay – which in a academic setting can become small enough to affect lifestyle and actually get in the way of doing science.

    After a lifetime of living in a male dominated world steeped in a veneer of objectivity, the only thing left for me is to hope for some far more universal judgement that runs far deeper, even if it is in some other life. In the meantime, my joys are in the publications of the highly creative, small and careful papers that I hope someday people will find and know that I was here and even that my scientific skills were more substantial, in the long run, than those whose careers primarily benefitted themselves. I view those papers as being written with blood in the sand. In my fantasy of a world of fair judgement, those men who have affected my career may discover they were far more like politicians more concerned with power than truth than they ever could imagine. A person can dream. But what is a scientist without dreams?

    Thank you so much for this article.

  5. Posted July 23, 2017 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    I read this with interest and did a little research. I also used to work for a private research institute. The junior faculty (and to my knowledge, all women) were told that they needed to completely fund their lab with NIH dollars. I received no salary support from my department and was given little access to other pots of money at my research institute. I was not allowed to apply for grants from private foundations because private foundations often did not provide indirect costs. Obviously I did not make a lot–I was a glorified postdoc. I could have accepted this as fair if this rule were applied evenly. However, you would hear that some people were bringing in million dollar salaries, and you could see that others had huge labs, and lots of students and postdocs. But you would go to the NIH reporter and you wouldn’t see any evidence that these people, who were often close to the leadership and who were are all male (and I think mostly white), had much NIH grant support. These faculty would publish, often in CNS journals, and they would look productive and successful. You would ask yourself how you, as a youngish woman, could compete if you had to spend all of your time scratching for NIH grants in order to stay afloat. So, I can see that productivity may have dropped off a bit for these women, but I can also see quite a bit more evidence of NIH support for some of them than for the “famous” senior male faculty at Salk who are not being pushed out. Joane Chory is HHMI so you probably can’t use her as evidence that women can be successful at Salk. Elizabeth Blackburn made her career at the University of California, which is more transparent, so she also does not count. My take on this is that the senior male faculty were most likely using donor/foundation dollars to comfortably support themselves and their research over the years and may not have been including the women equally in their haul of donor dollars. This would clearly result in lower productivity for the women over the years. I suspect that the men feel that this money was earned and may have not considered the fact that most wealth that could be donated is controlled by men and that the men are likely to have much more access to wealthy donors. Of course, it is hard to prove this without knowing who is getting what given that this is a private research institute and salaries/donations are not made public. Also, is a private research institute obligated to share donations equally? My feeling that things were not fair and that I could not hope to become an connected club member regardless of how hard I worked was why I eventually moved to the UC system. While I am a bit annoyed with the bureaucracy here, I do think it is fairer to women: Transparency is important if you want to build equality. I wish the three good luck with their lawsuit.

  6. Ronald
    Posted August 14, 2017 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    Disclaimer: white & male! So, despite of this bias, I’ve to admit that academia is not the wonderland we think it is or should be. It took me a lot of years to realize this. Before this time, I would have discarded the story above as an exaggerated ‘fait divers’. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. It’s not even a US problem, it may be even worse in Europe (despite fact that many Europeans think of themselves as being very ‘enlightened’). Academia suffers indeed from bias. This bias stems from ‘old boys networks’ and models that since long have been thrown overboard in industry. For example, it’s hard for an outsider to enter the ‘inner circle’ of academia in a lot of European universities. One time, a colleague pointed me to the fact that there were close to zero female full professors in a lot of faculties in the institute we wore working in: this was the exact same number of ‘immigrant’ full professors. It’s unbelievable that academia is in fact suffering from this kind of bigotry. I was lucky to have grants from industry, otherwise I would have suffered a similar fate as a lot of scientists who find themselves on the wrong side of the academic fence.
    I have to congratulate Michael Eisen with his call for fairness and justice. Good luck to all scientists who dare to speak up.