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Salk Institute Gets Pushback Over Response To Gender Discrimination Lawsuits

The campus of the Salk Institute is shown in this undated photo.

Photo by toml1959/Flickr

Above: The campus of the Salk Institute is shown in this undated photo.

The La Jolla scientific research institution has been getting pushback from some prominent scientists over its description of the two scientists who brought forward the complaints.

The Salk Institute, a major scientific research institution in La Jolla, has been getting pushback from some prominent scientists over its response to gender discrimination lawsuits filed by two scientists who allege the Salk is home to an "old boys club" culture that is hostile to women professors.

Responding to the separate complaints brought by professors Vicki Lundblad and Katherine Jones, Salk officials issued statements defending the institution's level of support for each professor. They said both scientists have received millions of dollars of investment from Salk, and have been paid salaries above or in line with compensation for professors in comparable positions.

Salk officials wrote that the performance of each scientist "has long remained within the bottom quartile of her peers at Salk."

Johns Hopkins molecular biology professor Carol Greider said she strongly disagreed with Salk's assessment.

RELATED: Two Sides Respond To Lawsuit Alleging Gender Discrimination At Salk Institute

"I think it was unnecessary to say something false about the quality of their science," said Greider, who won a Nobel prize in 2009 for her work on telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes. Greider said Lundblad "is one of the major players in the telomere field. I would say she's easily within the top 10 in the world."

Greider also argued that Lundblad's election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 reflects the scientific community's opinion on the quality of her science.

"I understand that institutions, once you get a lawyer involved, need to protect themselves," Greider said. "But the real surprise was that they wanted to somehow disparage the quality of the science of the two scientists who came forward. That's what I would not have expected."

Nobel-winner Phillip Sharp, a professor at MIT, told KPBS in an email that he could not comment on the legal situation at Salk. But he said Katherine Jones' work on gene expression during HIV infection has made a significant impact in her field.

"Kathy made important contributions and learned that a particular step was critical for viral growth," wrote Sharp. "Over the years, she has continued to study this step, publishing one or two papers a year. These papers are in highly regarded journals and her research is well respected by peers in the field. Kathy is a very good scientist."

In its early response to the lawsuits, Salk officials highlighted that Lundblad and Jones have not published studies in the high-profile journals Cell, Nature or Science during the past decade. A number of scientists said that was a flawed metric for measuring success.

"It is not fair," said UC Davis professor Jonathan Eisen, who advocates for publishing in open-access journals, in an email to KPBS. "We should judge researchers by the quality of their work, not the name of the journal where they publish."

Salk officials later removed references to the so-called "CNS" journals in its updated statements about Lundblad and Jones.

Lundblad's complaint claims that prior to June 2017, she was the only woman hired directly into a full professor position over the past 40 years. Last month, Salk hired immunobiologist Susan Kaech as a full professor. But Salk professor Beverly Emerson said women are rarely internally promoted to this level.

"I have been at Salk for almost 31 years and was the last female promoted to full professor in 1999," Emerson wrote to KPBS in an email. "I completely support the actions taken by my colleagues Drs. Jones and Lundblad to address this long-standing problem at Salk."

Deborah Dixon, an attorney with the law firm representing Lundblad and Jones, said in an email that Salk's statements about her clients were "unfounded" and "disparaging." She blasted what she called "Salk's shocking attempt to publicly slander its own faculty."

One female professor at Salk has publicly defended the institution. In a statement provided by Salk officials, professor Joanne Chory said, "While there are always opportunities to increase access for women scientists, I've always thought that the Salk has provided me with the facilities and resources that I needed to flourish as a scientist."

Salk's current president, Nobel-winning telomere scientist Elizabeth Blackburn, said in a statement that she is "saddened that an institute as justly revered as the Salk Institute is being misrepresented by accusations of gender discrimination."

She goes on to say, "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."

Taken together, the lawsuits describe Salk as a place where certain senior male faculty members have been allowed to openly disparage and discriminate against female professors, creating a hostile work environment that prevents women from advancing professionally.

Lundblad and Jones allege that Salk has systematically given female professors less resources and fewer opportunities to tap into funding from private donors. They say this has resulted in disparities including significantly lower staffing levels in labs headed by women.

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