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Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn commissioned a "faculty issues" report that addressed women's status at the Salk Institute soon after she took its helm in 2016.

Bret Hartman/TED

Leaked documents expose long-standing gender tensions at Salk Institute

Senior female faculty at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies raise more than twice as much in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for scientists working in their labs as their male counterparts, according to a 2016 internal report on "faculty issues" requested by leaders of the San Diego, California, institution. Yet Salk leaders favored male scientists by granting them greater access to internal funds and other resources, the report implies, echoing gender discrimination lawsuits filed last month against the research center.

Salk officials vigorously disputed that suggestion this week. Still, the internal report and other in-house documents obtained by Science provide a glimpse of the issues that have fueled longstanding gender-related tensions within the storied, 57-year-old institution founded by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk.

The report was among several commissioned early in 2016 by Nobel prize-winning biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, who had just become the institute's president. It was prepared by a group of faculty members chaired by Beverly Emerson, a molecular biologist who is one of three plaintiffs in last month's lawsuits. Citing the pending litigation, Salk has declined to release the report and a similar gender-based analysis from 2003; both are cited in Emerson's lawsuit.

Salk said in a statement that the report, and a second similar document prepared by Katherine Jones, another plaintiff, are "draft documents containing opinions and self-titled ‘findings,’ many of which are misguided or we disagree with or dispute."

Emerson's committee examined several issues, including the staff sizes and NIH funding of laboratories run by 24 tenured professors at the institute, four of whom were women. (The analysis excluded professors supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.) It found that Salk's female-run laboratories were four of its five smallest. Excluding the principal investigators, the labs run by the four women had an average of three scientists per laboratory. The 20 male professors had an average of 12.5 per laboratory. The women, however, won more per capita NIH funding: an average of $195,000 for each staff scientist, not counting themselves. Their male counterparts raised about $95,000 in NIH funds per staff scientist. The analysis looked only at NIH grants on which a Salk professor was listed as principal investigator (PI) or co-PI.

What the report calls the "striking inverse ratio" between lab size and NIH support per scientist implies that Salk leaders disproportionately support male-run labs with institutional funds drawn from foundations, individual donors, and other sources. Those institutional funds were "awarded through a largely nontransparent mechanism," the report charges, which appeared to be contributing to a "significant gender-specific bias" in funding that favors male scientists.

Evidence of bias?

A disputed study of laboratories run by tenured faculty at the Salk Institute found that female-led laboratories had fewer staff scientists, but won more funding from the National Institutes of Health, per scientist, than male-led labs. Three senior Salk women allege that institute leaders nonetheless gave male scientists preferential access to institute funding that allowed them to maintain larger staffs.

Salk rejects that analysis. "The numbers related to funding by faculty member are simply wrong," it said. It notes that the computations do not include funding coming into Salk labs through NIH subcontracts or other government agencies (a qualification also noted by the report's authors), and that some male professors win private awards without help from Salk. "There is absolutely no accurate basis to assert that large labs achieve that size due to funding received from Salk," according to the institute's statement. It adds that the three plaintiffs' labs "receive more ‘Salk’ funds on average than those run by [tenured] men."

Salk's efforts to hire female scientists have sputtered, the report suggests. According to the analysis, 15 men and four women joined the faculty, mostly at junior levels, from 2010 to 2016. During the same period, four men and one woman were offered full professorships but declined.

The numbers do not include Yale University immunologist Susan Kaech, who plans to join Salk as a fully tenured professor early next year. And the woman who declined an offer, tuberculosis researcher Lalita Ramakrishnan, says gender-related issues had no influence on her decision to instead take a position at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Ramakrishnan says Salk offered a warm welcome and a "fantastic" salary increase, but she chose Cambridge because of its unparalleled collection of mutant zebrafish that are instrumental to her work—and because her brother lives there.

The 2003 internal report, also obtained by Science, makes it clear that recruiting female faculty has long been a challenge for Salk. From 2000 to 2003, seven men accepted assistant professor offers and two rejected them. But all five women who were offered assistant professor posts declined. That report called for concerted efforts to recruit women, and urged development of transparent policies on promotion and tenure. It also called for the president's office to develop a database tracking the allocation of space and resources to individual labs, to be "perused on a regular basis for gender-specific inequities."

The 2016 report echoes those recommendations. Its list of nine recommendations calls for Salk to launch a "clustered hire" of at least three senior female faculty; to impose term limits on chairmanships and memberships of academic governance committees long dominated by men; to establish a written, transparent policy for awarding institutional "bridge" funds to tide over labs whose government funding lapses; and to allow any faculty member to apply, through a peer-reviewed process, for private funding opportunities in which Salk chooses who applies.

Emerson alleges that Blackburn and then-Board of Trustees Chairman Irwin Jacobs "completely ignored the damning evidence of gender discrimination" in the 2016 report, as well as a finding in another 2016 white paper on finances that "the mechanism for distribution of Institute resources may not be gender-neutral." Neither finding, she charges, was taken up with the board. In its statement, Salk said "general concepts" from the documents were presented to the board "as a primer for a broad-based strategic planning process. That process is still underway."

The institute said it has undertaken many initiatives aimed at increasing female faculty numbers and support, including providing childcare allowances and hiring a chief scientific officer who reviews job applicant pools for diversity. Salk also noted that three of the four tenured female professors hold endowed chairs and two have been elected chairperson of the faculty's governing Academic Council; currently, 32% of the institute's junior faculty are women.

The documents obtained by Science suggest that Salk is dealing with substantial financial pressures even as it confronts gender issues. According to an internal financial document from 2016, in 2015, the institute's operating shortfall was $3.2 million. In 2016, government grants provided 43% of Salk's revenue, down from 65% in 2006 and a net decrease of 36 research project grants. That makes the institute more reliant on endowment income and private and foundation gifts that cover a smaller share of overhead costs than government grants. Salk's endowment per faculty member, at $7 million, is at the bottom of a list of a half dozen comparable independent biomedical research institutes, such as the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri. And Salk's faculty is shrinking and aging; the number of faculty dropped from 53 to 44 from 2006 to 2015, and 43% of faculty members were over age 60 in 2016.

Salk said in an email that the 2016 financial report is an outdated draft and that the institute “in many ways is now in the best financial and operational position it has ever been.”  It noted that a six-year fundraising campaign that concluded in 2015 raised $361 million, exceeding its $300 million target. And it disputed that the institute ran an operating deficit of $3.2 million in 2015, as the internal draft report stated, and said that “for fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017, the institute posted an operating surplus averaging $1.1 million, with 2015 yielding the largest surplus of the three. There was no operating shortfall in 2015.”
The statement added that the draft report's description of declining federal award income in the decade that ended in 2016 was “completely offset" by growth in income from investments and non-federal awards.
The email also denied that Salk’s faculty is “aging and shrinking.” The faculty number, reported in the 2016 report as having fallen from 53 in 2006 to 44 in 2015, will grow to 51 by next March, when two new members join, the email states. Today, the average faculty member age is 53, the Salk email said.
Updated, 08/23/2017, 9:44 p.m.: This story has been updated to include the Salk Institute’s response to the internal 2016 financial report obtained by Science.