Accusations of gender discrimination are growing at the Salk Institute, where a third female professor has sued the La Jolla science center for allegedly giving preference to men in pay, promotions, grant funding and leadership positions.
Beverly Emerson, a prominent biochemist who studies how genes contribute to disease, filed a lawsuit this week that described the institute as an “antiquated boys’ club” that has been “systematically undermining and marginalizing its three female full professors.”
She was referring to herself and fellow Salk biologists Vicki Lundblad and Katherine Jones, who separately sued the institute for gender discrimination last week. A full professor is the highest rank possible for faculty members.
Salk officials reject the claims of gender bias. Emerson was in Europe and couldn’t be reached for comment.
In recent days, the institute has called Jones’ and Lundblad’s allegations unfounded, and has asserted that both women trailed their peers in producing high-quality work and attracting research grants.
It’s very unusual for a research institution to publicly criticize a researcher’s work, and it’s equally unusual for the Salk Institute to suffer from a public airing of discord.
The Salk’s legal turmoil comes just as the fabled institute — known internationally for its consistent focus on making groundbreaking, fundamental discoveries in the biological sciences — is finalizing its premier fundraising gala for next month. The controversy has generated plenty of discussion among researchers nationwide, but it’s unclear if the unrest will affect the institute’s ability to recruit top-tier scientists and bring in significant donations from the private sector.
Among non-Salk scientists who have spoken out publicly about the lawsuits is Carol Greider at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, a Nobel laureate who shared the prize with Elizabeth Blackburn — the Salk Institute’s current president.
“I’ve known [Emerson] for over 30 years, been to many conferences with her. And her science is fabulous,” Greider said Thursday.
She questioned Salk’s public relations strategy of portraying Lundblad and Jones as subpar. “You don’t disparage the people that are saying there is a problem,” Greider said. “The high road to take is to acknowledge that the problem exists everywhere, which all of us know, and that they want to work toward resolving it.”
Greider also praised Blackburn as a longtime and strong proponent of female scientists.
“I certainly have received her support, and she has actively spoken out in support of women in science,” Greider said.
Blackburn said in a statement Thursday: “As a woman who has seen firsthand the extraordinary contributions female scientists have made to science and health research, I have both a personal and professional interest in ensuring that women are valued, supported and encouraged to be at the forefront of this critical work.
“I would never preside over an organization that in any way condones, openly or otherwise, the marginalizing of female scientists,” she added. “We are saddened and deeply disappointed by the misrepresentations made by our colleagues in these claims, which we will defend against vigorously. Underscoring their lack of merit, the characterizations already have been debunked by other current female professors at the institute who have flourished here.”
Emerson joined the Salk in 1986, when she was hired as an assistant professor. Her latest contract will end in late December.
She filed her lawsuit Tuesday in San Diego Superior Court. In her suit she claims, “Very few females have made it to the level of full professor, and those who have, have endured numerous discriminatory reprisals minimizing their successes.” That includes slower promotion processes, lower pay regardless of their experience and scientific contributions; and less access to crucial services needed to win grants, publish in the most prestigious journals and build an overall reputation of excellence.
She also alleges in the lawsuit that there’s been “an unequal distribution of resources” when it comes to donor funding and lab staff. She describes a workplace where women are denied “nearly all leadership and professional advancement opportunities,” and where women “are undermined, disrespected, disparaged and treated unequally.”
Emerson said Salk administrators — including Blackburn, former institute President William Brody and former board Chairman Irwin Jacobs of Qualcomm fame — “have known about this discrimination, yet done absolutely nothing to stop it or right the wrongs.”
Jacobs said Thursday that he wasn’t in a position to comment because he hadn’t seen Emerson’s lawsuit. Brody has yet to respond to requests since Saturday for comment on the litigation.
Emerson is seeking a jury trial. She’s asking for an unspecified amount of money to cover, among other things, what she sees as lost pay over the decades. She’s also requesting punitive damages.
On Thursday, Jones said since she and Lundblad filed their lawsuits last week, they have received “an outpouring of support and encouragement from scientists and colleagues across the nation.”
“It really has hit a nerve ... that feels like it is far beyond our individual circumstances,” she added.
Jones and Lundblad are represented by the same law firm, while Emerson has a different attorney.
Like Lundblad and Jones, Emerson is prominent in biomedical research. In 2015, her collective body of work led to her being elected to the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific organization.
Besides getting praised from Greider at Johns Hopkins, Emerson’s scientific credentials were endorsed on Thursday by UC Santa Cruz researcher Nader Pourmand, who collaborated with her on a 2014 study on how cancer develops resistance to chemotherapy.
Emerson was the senior author of that report, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The project demonstrated how breast cancer cells can evolve resistance to chemotherapy drugs more quickly than scientists had assumed.
“She is really precise … she always does good work,” Pourmand said.
Meanwhile, Greider and UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen disputed one of the Salk’s metrics for evaluating its faculty members: The number of times their work has been published in prestige journals such as Science, Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine.
In its critiques of Jones and Lundblad issued Friday, the institute had faulted them for their lack of studies published in such journals.
The push for profits distorts the kind of science featured in those publications, said Eisen, a co-founder of the open-access journal PLOS. And women are hurt disproportionately by this emphasis, he said.
“There’s some good evidence to suggest that women have a more difficult time getting their work published in these journals because it is kind of an old boys’ network to get in in the first place,” Eisen said. “So it is particularly problematic to say, ‘Well geez, these women aren’t performing at the level of their male colleagues’ using, you know, a metric that’s known to be biased against women. To me, the fact that the Salk said that is a tacit acknowledgment that they’re using a gender-biased system to evaluate these women.”
Concern about the way the Salk treats female scientists isn’t new. The institute produced private studies in 2003 and last year that examined the hiring, promotion and funding of female faculty members, as well as leadership opportunities for them.
Emerson said in her lawsuit that both analyses revealed serious problems. Her claim, along with similar ones from Jones and Lundblad last week, could not be verified yet because Salk hasn’t made the reports public.
In the United States, women receive about half of all the doctoral degrees awarded in scientific fields but represent only 21% of full professors on the faculty of research institutions, according to a 2012 report from the National Science Foundation. The numbers are similar for the life sciences.
Robbins and Fikes are San Diego Union-Tribune staff writers.