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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