The Salk Institute for Biological Studies campus in San Diego, California.

Anjani Jain CC BY-SA 2.0

Salk puts cancer scientist Inder Verma on leave after harassment allegations, announces investigation

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies has placed prominent cancer and gene therapy scientist Inder Verma on administrative leave and launched an investigation into allegations against him.

Dan Lewis, the chairman of the San Diego, California, institute’s board of trustees, announced the moves in an email to Salk employees today.

He wrote that the decision to place Verma, 70, on leave was made by the board yesterday.

Lewis wrote, without specifying that the allegations pertain to sexual harassment:

Recently, the Institute became aware of allegations concerning Dr. Inder Verma.  Consistent with Salk’s policies governing workplace conduct, the Institute has undertaken a formal investigation that is being led by an independent outside party.

We have also learned that Science is preparing a story about Dr. Verma and related allegations.  Earlier this week, the reporter 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.  He will not be performing scientific or administrative roles on behalf of the Institute during this period.

On 17 April, Science requested an interview with Salk officials regarding sexual harassment allegations against Verma, who was hired there in 1974. The institute asked instead for a list of detailed written questions, which it received from Science on Wednesday morning, 18 April.

Verma denied the allegations in a statement issued by his lawyer. “I have never used my position at the Salk Institute to take advantage of others,” he wrote. “I have also never engaged in any sort of intimate relationship with anyone affiliated with the Salk Institute. 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."

Salk began its investigation into allegations against Verma in February, a Salk spokesperson wrote in an email. On 12 March, the institute hired The Rose Group, a San Diego–based international employment law and consulting firm, to conduct an external probe, which is being led by Ken Rose, the group’s principal. According to Lewis’s email, Salk’s board of directors asked yesterday that interim President Rusty Gage stay on as president—which he agreed to do—and put on hold the search for a new president to replace its outgoing leader, Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn.

I have never used my position at the Salk Institute to take advantage of others.

Inder Verma, Salk Institute for Biological Studies

“It goes without saying that the past year has been a challenging one for us,” Lewis wrote. “[But] nothing we have faced has shaken my faith in this extraordinary place or dimmed my outlook for our future.”

Lewis praised Verma's "extraordinary" contributions to science and his leadership at Salk. "But," he wrote, "Salk will not condone any findings of inappropriate conduct in the workplace, regardless of one’s stature or influence.”

Last summer, three female Salk senior scientists sued the institute for gender discrimination, calling it an “old boys club” that had systematically impeded their careers because they were women; the lawsuits are set to go to trial next December.

In December 2017, Blackburn, Salk’s first female president, announced that she would leave the institute after just 2 years. The news came the same week that the National Academy of Sciences asked Verma to step aside as editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences until the issues raised by the lawsuits were settled. Verma was cited by name in two of the three lawsuits as blocking women's advancement and funding opportunities at the institute.

Salk’s profile remains high. On Friday night, former Vice President Joe Biden was at the institute highlighting the launch of a Salk cancer research initiative.