Column: A gender discrimination case at the legendary Salk Institute exposes an ugly problem in science
Few scientists could probably imagine a more idyllic place to work than the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
Founded in 1960 by Jonas Salk, the institute occupies a landmark building in La Jolla designed by legendary architect Louis Kahn on 27 oceanfront acres. Among its first fellows were four Nobel laureates, including Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. To this day it’s regarded as one of the foremost life science research centers in the world. It’s structured like a university, with professorial titles and perquisites such as tenure, but without students or classes. The faculty members devote themselves full-time to research.
But for several of its distinguished female professors, things don’t look quite so sunny. Katherine Jones, 63, Victoria Lundblad, 65, and Beverly Emerson, 66, have filed lawsuits alleging that they’ve been the victims of discrimination by Salk management for decades. The laboratory spaces for women are among the most confined at the institute and their staff allocations among the smallest, they say, even though they consistently bring in more in research grants than many of their male colleagues.
I was just keeping quiet about stuff I felt was so wrong, and I sort of lost respect for myself.
Victoria Lundblad, Salk Institute professor
“For over half a century,” Emerson’s lawsuit says, “the Salk Institute has operated as an antiquated boys’ club, systematically undermining and marginalizing its three female full professors.” The few women who have gained full professorships at the institution have done so despite enduring “slower promotion rates;...lower pay,” and “a hostile environment in which they are undermined, disrespected, disparaged, and treated unequally.”
Salk officials say they disagree with the plaintiffs’ claims, though they are investigating them internally. They also have implied that the plaintiffs turned in poor scientific performances, although colleagues in their fields praise them as outstanding researchers.
The numbers on gender diversity at the Salk are telling. Of 31 full professors, only five are women (including one who holds an appointment from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a recent appointee who has not yet arrived, and the three plaintiffs). Of 18 assistant and associate professors, five are women. Of the three plaintiffs, Lundblad joined in 2004 and Emerson and Jones were hired 32 years ago.
The three plaintiffs declined to be interviewed, saying they’re preparing to give depositions. But in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune soon after filing their lawsuits, Jones and Lundblad said they had become fed up with the discriminatory climate at the Salk.
Jones indicated she became concerned that continued cutbacks in her lab staff would ruin her ability to remain in the forefront of her field. She said she was beginning to think: “I’m going to be made extinct….I’m going to be prematurely terminated out of my scientific career.”
The women say discriminatory practices persisted even after gender disparities at the Salk were documented in a 2003 study conducted by a faculty committee of which Jones was a member. The report noted that only seven of 52 active faculty at the Salk, or 13%, were women. “Moreover,” it added, “an alarming trend has occurred…. We are doing worse now in recruiting women than in years past,” while the percentage of women receiving PhDs in the life sciences had risen to nearly 50%.
A faculty committee chaired by Emerson in 2016 cited a continued lack of progress. Women still received fewer faculty appointments and had less access to coveted endowed chairs than men despite a record of bringing in disproportionately more funding — an average of $195,000 in grants from the National Institutes of Health per lab staff member, compared to $95,000 at “labs run by senior male faculty.”
Of the 24 labs at the Salk, the report noted, four of the five smallest were those run by women, with as few as two full-time staff members. The largest, run by a man, had 50.
The lawsuits have focused attention on gender discrimination beyond Salk, energizing discussion in the broader scientific community about the subtle obstacles faced by female scientists.
In an open letter published in Science last September and headlined, “Not Just Salk,” 37 scientists observed that gender discrimination had been recognized by the academic scientific community, at least in the abstract, as long ago as 1999, when MIT published a groundbreaking self-examination of the status of its women faculty.
Subsequent studies generally found that even as the presence of women increased among graduates and post-graduates in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), their prominence faded as they moved up the echelons of academic status, a process often described as a “leaky pipeline.” In biology, the American Assn. of University Women found in 2010, women received 42% of all doctorates in 1996 (the ratio is about 50-50 now), but women held fewer than 25% of tenured faculty seats and 34% of tenure-track faculty openings in 2006.
Laypersons may think of scientific institutions as rigorously meritocratic, but that’s an idealized picture, says Michael Eisen, a UC Berkeley biologist and a signatory to the Science letter. Subjective biases, conscious and unconscious, can play an important role in any researcher’s advancement.
“Success in science is all about individual people evaluating your work,” Eisen says. “It’s about two or three people deciding if you’re going to get this grant, or if you’re going to get this paper published in this journal. If a few of those people are really biased against you, or against women, that can have an incredibly important role.” That can be magnified in a small institution like the Salk, where there’s “a small number of people in a critical position.”
Indeed, Lundblad in her lawsuit points to Inder Verma, a Salk professor she says held a vise grip over the distribution of donations from the Leona B. and Harry M. Helmsley Charitable Trust totaling $66 million, among the largest private donations in the Salk’s history. None of the Salk’s three tenured women received any money from the donations, according to the lawsuit.
When Lundblad protested, she was told the distribution was in the hands of Verma, who she says she had heard “openly disparage” Jones and Emerson with “overtly derogatory comments about them and their science.” Verma didn’t reply to a request for comment.
Salk management says the professors’ lawsuits have caused barely a ripple in the placid surface of the institution. “If you were to come here and walk around, that wouldn’t be a topic of conversation,” says Fred “Rusty” Gage, a Salk geneticist who stepped in as interim president of Salk earlier this month, after the unexpected resignation of Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel laureate, after two years in the post.
“We’re moving ahead with what we do,” Gage told me. “We do science, and we communicate our science to the community.” But he says the institute takes the allegations “very seriously” and has launched an internal investigation of the complaints. The Salk also says it has stepped up recruitment of women scientists and undertaken other initiatives to improve diversity.
Yet Salk’s response to the lawsuits has had an ugly undertone. In mid-July, after Lundblad and Jones had filed their lawsuits in San Diego state court but before Emerson had filed hers, the institute issued a statement asserting that a “rigorous analysis” found the two scientists “consistently ranking below her peers in producing high quality research and attracting” grants.
Lundblad and Jones, the statement asserted, both ranked within “the bottom quartile of her peers” in performance.
Protests of the attack were heard across the scientific community. Johns Hopkins biologist Carol Greider, who like Lundblad is an expert in telomeres (enzyme structures that protect the ends of chromosomes from damage), called the statement a “character smear” in a tweet. Lundblad is “one of the few icons in the field,” says Greider, one of the organizers of the Science open letter. “For me to read in a press release that she’s somehow in the bottom quartile rang really poorly to me.”
Greider says she has known Jones and Emerson for 30 years, “and I’ve been hearing their stories of not really being heard at the Salk for 30 years.”
Blackburn later backed off from the Salk statement, asserting that any impression the institute meant to denigrate the scientists’ work was “unintended.”
Salk late last year denied a contract extension to Emerson, who has spent her entire career at the institute, forcing her to close her laboratory on Dec. 31. Emerson says in her lawsuit that extensions are “regularly granted for male full professors,” and that the denial was a retaliation for her lawsuit. The Salk says there is “no connection” between the claims in Emerson’s lawsuit and its action, which it says was based on “long-standing guidelines,” and says that Emerson will remain at the institute as a professor emerita.
The Salk’s preeminence may help give discrimination against women scientists a higher profile. That’s Greider’s hope. “We can use the Salk as a hook to bring back the issues that women in science have been battling for a long time,” she says. “But I don’t think we in the realm of academics or science are in any way different from what’s going on in the culture at large. These issues are not unique to us.”