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ETH Zurich has announced an investigation into alleged mistreatment of researchers at its Institute for Astronomy.


Hundreds of astronomers rally behind whistleblowers at controversial Swiss institute

Nearly 700 astronomers have signed a letter of support for early-career researchers who recently reported cases of alleged bullying at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. The university announced last week that it would launch an external investigation into allegations that a leading professor of astronomy, Marcella Carollo, had exhibited “inept management conduct toward many of her graduate students.”

The ETH investigation follows the university’s August decision to close the Institute for Astronomy, where the alleged mistreatment took place. That decision was made quietly, and few in the astronomy community noticed until 21 October, when the Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag reported extensively on the allegations, including charges that authorities had ignored earlier reports of misconduct.

After the story appeared, two dozen of Carollo’s colleagues and former lab members drafted a letter defending her and her husband, cosmologist Simon Lilly, both of whom were hired in 2002 to launch the institute. That letter acknowledged that Carollo could be “a relentless task master” but said this stemmed from a strong commitment to her students and a “desire to maximise their career chances.”

That is “a distorted view of what excellence looks like,” says Bryan Gaensler, an astronomer at the University of Toronto in Canada who helped draft the new letter in response. Carollo’s defenders “seemed either to assign blame to the victims for what they experienced or to tell them to toughen up,” he says. “We wanted to show them that the community largely stood with them.”

The new letter attracted 690 signatures within 2 days after being posted online. “A scientist’s aptitude for excellent research is completely unrelated to their ability as a supervisor,” the letter says. “Research and mentorship are separate skills, and all astronomers should aspire to be outstanding at both of them.” The letter urges “all scientists to reflect on how they can be better supervisors, and to commit to ongoing training and self-improvement in this area.”

Gaensler says the letter and signatures were forwarded to the affected students this morning. Carollo has said she cannot comment on the case.