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Campus of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California.

Courtesy of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Two female scientists sue Salk Institute, alleging discrimination at ‘old boys club’

Two senior female scientists are suing their employer, the prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Studies, alleging pervasive, long-standing gender discrimination. The independent institute, in San Diego, California, was founded by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk 57 years ago.

In the pair of lawsuits, filed 11 July in California Superior Court in San Diego, plaintiffs Vicki Lundblad and Katherine Jones seek unspecified compensation for an array of harms. Lundblad, 64, is a cell biologist who made her name in telomere biology and has been at the institute since 2003. Jones, 62, is an expert in transcription elongation, a process that controls the expression of HIV and cancer genes; she has been at the Salk since 1986. Both are tenured professors and as such comprise two of the four women on the institute’s scientific staff  who hold such positions. (The others are cancer biologist Beverly Emerson and plant biologist Joanne Chory.)  Salk has 28 fully tenured professors who are male, according to Lundblad’s suit.

In their complaints, the plaintiffs allege long-standing, systematic sexism by the Salk Institute. Salk’s administration, the plaintiffs allege, excluded them from funding, pressured them to downsize their labs, disparaged their work, and prevented them from being considered for lucrative grants.

“Salk has allowed an “old boys club” culture to dominate, creating a hostile work environment for the Salk tenured women professors,” Lundblad alleges in her complaint. The institute also prevented female scientists from benefiting from the proceeds of a 2013 fundraising campaign that promoted, according to Jones’s complaint, “the false idea that the Salk Institute strongly supports women in science.”  

Jones alleges in her complaint that Salk leaders used female faculty members and scientists as “donor-bait” by picturing them on mailers sent to potential donors “in an effort to make it appear that Salk recognizes the importance of retaining and promoting and paying women equally” (see image, below).

Part of a brochure used in a 2013 fundraising campaign by the Salk Institute. Plaintiff Vicki Lunblad is fifth from right. Plaintiff Katherine Jones is fourth from right.

Salk Institute

A storied hub

Perched on a campus on the Pacific coast, the Salk is a storied hub of biology with a scientific staff of more than 600 and an impressive roster of Nobel laureates past and present. It raised about $125 million in 2016 to support research into topics including aging, cancer and immunology, diabetes, brain science, and plant biology, according to an institute fact sheet.

In an ironic twist, the current president is a woman: Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, who discovered the molecular nature of telomeres and who co-discovered telomerase, was hired in November 2015 and began work in January 2016. Her predecessor, William Brody, headed the institute from 2008 to 2015.

Lundblad alleges that “even Dr. Blackburn, the newly appointed Salk president and one of the most accomplished scientists in the world, has not been immune to … judgmental comments, with numerous senior male faculty making disparaging remarks about her abilities to function as Salk’s president.”

The lawsuits are not aimed at Blackburn, the plaintiffs tell ScienceInsider. “From what I have seen, she has been visionary in what she has laid out for the Salk,” says Lundblad, adding that her lawsuit “is directed at a deeply entrenched set of policies and procedures many of which aren’t even written.” Jones says she decided to sue well before Blackburn arrived.

Blackburn and Brody did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, the Salk Institute said that:

Drs. Jones and Lundblad, whose laboratories have received over $5 million in support from the Institute over the past 10 fiscal years, have been treated generously by the Institute, including relative to their male peers. Each scientist’s lucrative compensation package is consistent with well-recognized metrics that have been applied to all Salk faculty in a nondiscriminatory manner. … Salk denies that Dr. Jones or Dr. Lundblad have suffered any harm or adverse employment action based on their gender.

The institute also provided statements about Lundblad and Jones’s scientific records, which it said resulted from a “rigorous analysis.” The statements argued that the institute “has invested millions of dollars” in each woman, despite each “consistently ranking below her peers in producing high quality research and attracting the grants that could advance that research.” The statements said that neither woman has published a paper in the top journals Cell, Nature, and Science in the last 10 years. (Comparative data for the rest of Salk’s faculty were not immediately available.) Lundblad’s salary “is well above the median for Salk full professors ($250,000),” one statement added, “yet her performance has long remained within the bottom quartile of her peers.” Jones’s salary, that statement said, “aligns with those of professors at such prestigious institutions as Stanford University ($227,000) and Columbia University ($209,000), yet her performance has long remained within the bottom quartile of her peers.” (According to the institute’s Form 990, which nonprofit organizations must file with the Internal Revenue Service, the highest salaries paid to scientists at the institute in the 12 months that ended in June 2016 went to gene therapist and cancer scientist Inder Verma, who earned $405,932, and neuroscientist Fred "Rusty” Gage, who was paid $367,452.)
Both women, the statements said, have failed to obtain adequate grants and thus relied on the institute to provide supplemental funding. The institute also provided a supportive statement from tenured professor Chory, who is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator. “I’ve always thought that the Salk has provided me with the facilities and resources that I needed to flourish as a scientist. I have enjoyed collaborations and made discoveries that would not have been possible anywhere else,” it states.
But the fourth tenured woman, Emerson, wrote in an email to ScienceInsider that the lawsuit by her “outstanding” colleagues, Jones and Lundblad, is “entirely appropriate.”  “As our experience and unbiased data show, the situation at Salk for senior women faculty is grim on many levels resulting in a slow death even for the strongest individuals,” she wrote. “Our experience, in fact, mirrors the prescient findings of the landmark 1995 MIT study on the status of women faculty in science. It is unfortunate that Salk never adopted recommendations from this study, even after 22 years.”

Numerous claims

A theme in both lawsuits is the claim that a small, highly placed group—including Verma—holds sway over key funding opportunities. For female scientists, Lundblad alleges, the result has been a vicious cycle in which their lab budgets are squeezed, resulting in a smaller lab staff, decreasing productivity, and thus even greater difficulty in getting funding and further lost productivity. In 2015, Lundblad alleges that Brody told her that her science was “in a downward spiral” and “the field had passed her by.” A short time later, Lundblad was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Verma did not immediately respond to an interview request.

The lawsuits include a lengthy list of other claims and complaints. For example:

  • Jones contends that since 2009, the institute has created 21 new endowed chairs of which 19 have been awarded to men, and two to women. Lundblad alleges that "Salk has weaponized the awarding of endowed chairs. … perpetuat[ing] a negative cycle where female faculty are unable to obtain resources, but then denied further resources or opportunities because they do not have prior access to resources, including an endowed chair.”
  • Lundblad’s suit states that “only one of the 13 faculty that Salk has hired in the last three years has been a woman.”
  • Lundblad alleges that while her area of research overlapped with the goals of a $42 million, 2013 gift to the institute from the Helmsley Charitable Trust—the largest single gift to the Salk to date—neither she nor the two other tenured female faculty working in the area targeted by the gift received any of  funding, and 11 labs run by men received most of it.
  • When the Helmsley trust made another gift of $25 million in 2016, Lundblad claims that “13 of 14 male faculty members working in this area covered by the … grant received funding.” But Lundblad, the only woman working in the area, received none. Lundblad claims that “Verma, who has historically denied support to Salk-employed women faculty, controlled the distribution of Helmsley funds, with the full backing of senior Salk administration.”
  • Lundblad alleges that Verma, one past president of Salk and senior administrators have been openly dismissive of their female colleagues. As an example, she states that she “repeatedly witnessed Dr. Inder Verma openly disparage … Dr. Jones and Dr. Emerson, with numerous overtly derogatory comments about them and their science.”
  • Jones alleges that Salk “forced Dr. Jones to reduce her staff by 50%, from a high of 8 to 4 currently, despite having external funding equivalent to that of many male counterparts with much larger Laboratories.” She also states “the average size laboratory at Salk for non-HHMI male Full Professors is 11 full-time employees, whereas the average laboratory size for female Full Professors is only 3 full-time employees.”


*Update, 15 July, 11:45 a.m.: This story has been updated with additional statements from the Salk Institute and other sources. The original version of this story also stated that the Salk's scientific staff has three tenured female professors. The correct number is four.