Elizabeth Blackburn, the Nobel Prize–winning molecular biologist who took over just 2 years ago as president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, today announced her intent to retire next summer. The unexpected news comes as Salk faces gender discrimination lawsuits from three veteran female scientists and Blackburn herself has been challenged for not moving quickly enough to change what one plaintiff’s suit called an “old boys club” at the renowned research institute.
In a statement released by Salk, Blackburn said: “Being named to lead the Salk Institute unquestionably has been an honor of my life and this decision did not come without a great deal of thought. At this stage in my career and life, I’ve concluded that my energies will be best devoted to wider issues of science policy and ethics—issues in which I have had a deep and longstanding interest—and spent advocating for measures I feel are critical to supporting ongoing scientific research and discovery worldwide.”
Carol Greider, a biologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Blackburn for their discovery of telomeres and telomerase, commented in an email to Science: “I am encouraged to hear Liz is stepping aside from her position as President of the Salk. Liz had long been a champion of women in science. However, in recent weeks with the lawsuit at the Salk, it has been hard to hear this voice from Liz. … I welcome Liz’s desire to turn her energies to policy in the future.”
Although it’s not clear that Blackburn’s departure stems directly from the furor engulfing Salk, another of its senior scientists, Inder Verma, will, for the moment, give up his position as editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as a result of the lawsuits. In a 20 December email Science has obtained, Verma writes to the journal’s Editorial Board:
… the NAS Council has decided to place me on temporary leave as Editor-in-Chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, effective January 1, 2018 and until the resolution of the employment-related lawsuits filed against The Salk Institute of Biological Studies, where I am a Professor. … As you can imagine, the Council’s decision saddens me deeply, particularly because the lawsuits have nothing to do with my work with NAS and I am not named individually for any claim.
In one of the suits, however, Salk biologist Vicki Lundblad alleges that Verma specifically is among the Salk leaders who have been openly dismissive of their female colleagues and influenced decisions about their funding.
Meanwhile, at the end of this month, one of the other scientists suing Salk, Beverly Emerson, is losing her job because her contract is expiring and she has not raised 50% of her salary from external sources, the institute’s requirement for keeping scientists on after their contracts lapse.
With reporting by Meredith Wadman.