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Salk Institute places a star geneticist on leave over allegations about his conduct

Salk Institute places a star geneticist on leave over allegations about his conduct
The Salk Institute has placed renowned cancer research Inder Verma on leave of absence. (Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Salk Institute in La Jolla said Saturday that it placed star cancer scientist Inder Verma on leave because of unspecified allegations, further rocking a center that was earlier accused of gender discrimination by three of its female professors.

The Institute did not say whether the allegations are sexual in nature. But when asked about the matter, Verma said in an email: "I have never used my position at the Salk Institute to take advantage of others. I have also never engaged in any sort of intimate relationship with anyone affiliated with the Salk Institute.

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"I have never inappropriately touched, nor have I made any sexually charged comments, to anyone affiliated with the Salk Institute. I have never allowed any offensive or sexually charged conversations, jokes, material, etc. to occur at the Salk Institute," he said.

The suspension comes less than four months after Verma, one of the world's foremost experts on gene therapy, was placed on temporary leave as editor of the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Verma, 70, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the leave stemmed from the lawsuits that Salk professors Katherine Jones, Beverly Emerson and Vicky Lundblad separately filed against the Institute in July.

The three women accused the Salk of being an old boy's club that systemically discriminates against women in terms of salary, promotions and opportunities to compete for large private donations.

In her lawsuit, Lundblad said that Verma is one of the leaders at the Salk who has made it difficult for women to succeed — something Verma has denied.

Salk officials have called the accusations groundless.

The institute did not disclose Saturday whether the action it took against Verma was related to the three faculty lawsuits but said in a statement that it had recently learned of unspecified allegations against Verma, and that an independent investigation is being done by an outside party.

The statement also said that the journal Science is preparing a story on Verma, and that it contains unspecified "related allegations."

The Salk said a reporter from Science "presented the Institute with information about her story that included claims the Institute was not previously aware of. We take these allegations very seriously and have expanded the scope of the investigation."

"Yesterday, our Board of Trustees met to determine an appropriate course of action. Effective immediately, Dr. Verma has been placed on administrative leave, pending the outcome of the investigation," the institute said. "He will not be performing scientific or administrative roles on behalf of the Institute during this period."

In his email denying misconduct allegations to the Union-Tribune, Verma said, "I believe that it is inappropriate for an individual in a position of authority to engage in any intimate relationship with a direct report or to use that position of authority to take advantage of others."

The Salk is a small but preeminent biomedical institute that was founded by Jonas Salk, who developed the first effective vaccine against polio. The institute has built a global reputation for the quality of its studies on the basic mechanics of life — work that has helped lead to the development of new drugs, especially to fight cancer.

The institute has had leadership issues over the years. But the Salk has been deeply roiled by the gender discrimination allegations filed by its three professors.

Elizabeth Blackburn, the Nobel laureate who serves as president of the Salk, took the unusual step of criticizing the quality and quantity of the scientific work done by Jones and Lundblad.

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That led to a backlash by some of the nation's top scientists, who criticized the way Blackburn handled the controversy. The critics included researcher Carol Greider, with whom Blackburn shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2009.

Blackburn softened her criticism. In December, she unexpectedly announced that she would retire as president after less than three years in office. Her presidency will end in late summer.

Her announcement came just four months after Ted Waitt, chairman of Salk's board of trustees, unexpectedly announced that he was stepping down from the position. The institute hasn't clarified exactly when he left the chairmanship.

The lawsuits and unexpected retirements have produced bad publicity and turmoil at the Salk, raising the possibility that the institute could have trouble recruiting top leaders and faculty.

"It goes without saying that the past year has been a challenging one for us," board Chairman Dan Lewis said in a statement.

"It also has been a time for introspection and reflection, particularly as we have worked during this transition period to enhance our operations and ensure the Institute is well positioned to continue to lead the way in bold scientific discovery."

Robbings writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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