Smithsonian "discriminated" against scientist

Officials retaliated after publication of a paper supporting intelligent design, a Congressional report claims

Dec 22, 2006
Ted Agres
A recently released Congressional report accuses senior officials at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) of having harassed, discriminated against, and retaliated against research associate and journal editor Richard Sternberg for allowing publication of a scientific paper supporting intelligent design (ID) in 2004.According to the report, NMNH officials sought to discredit Sternberg and force him out of his unpaid RA position after he allowed an article by Stephen C. Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, to be published in the August 2004 Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a peer-reviewed journal of which he was managing editor at the time. While legally separate from the NMNH, Proceedings is governed by a council that includes NMNH scientists and receives public funds from the museum.Meyer's article, which used information theory to support the argument for intelligent design in biological complexity, sparked controversy. It was the first pro-ID article to be published in a refereed publication, raising concern among some scientists that it might be used to enhance the academic argument for intelligent design.The Congressional report, prepared by the staff of Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources and released Dec. 11, supports Sternberg's claims that NMNH supervisors investigated his political and religious beliefs, sought to discredit him, and aimed to force his removal as an RA by creating a "hostile work environment" after the article was published. The report suggests legislation is needed to protect the free speech of scientists at the Smithsonian and other federally funded institutions. "While the majority of scientists embrace Darwinian theory, it is important that neither Federal funds nor Federal power be used to punish or retaliate against otherwise qualified scientists merely because they dissent from the majority view," the report states. Sternberg, who is also a staff taxonomist at NIH's National Center for Biotechnology Information, said he is "thinking hard" about whether to file a discrimination lawsuit. "I do not think any Federal government employee should be discriminated against on the basis of their outside activities or their intellectual views, concerning theories of evolution or any other subject," Sternberg told The Scientist in an email. The report says NMNH officials and scientists discussed among themselves in emails whether Sternberg "was a Republican," "was a fundamentalist" or "was a conservative."It also references an Aug. 26, 2004, email from Hans Sues, NMNH associate director for research and collections, to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) seeking help in trying to determine whether Sternberg had misrepresented himself as a Smithsonian employee, as opposed to an RA, because doing so would have constituted grounds for his dismissal. NCSE spokesman Nicholas Matzke said his group was not part of an effort to dismiss Sternberg. "A lot of people at the Smithsonian were mad because their journal was dragged into a political issue. We wanted them to focus on the science and not persecute or discriminate against Sternberg on religious grounds," Matzke told The Scientist. "We advised them not to fire Sternberg," he said, "and they eventually followed our advice." NMNH public affairs director Randall Kremer denied that Sternberg had been harassed or discriminated against. Smithsonian and NMNH officials investigated Sternberg's allegations and found "no basis for his complaints," Kremer told The Scientist. "Sternberg still has an office here, and he has full access to the research facility," Kremer said. "If he feels people are hostile to him, it's his feeling. It's all in the eye of the beholder." Sternberg's appointment as an RA expires in January 2007. NMNH officials had previously offered to renew the position, but have since changed the post to that of research collaborator, which is a role for someone "less academically qualified," Sternberg said. "If this is a mistake on their part and they want to renew my former position as research associate, I will accept. Otherwise I will not."Sternberg filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the federal agency that investigates and prosecutes prohibited personnel practices, in late 2004. OSC staff attorney James McVay reported in an 11-page letter having found evidence to corroborate complaints of religious and political-affiliation discrimination and retaliation. "It is also clear that a hostile work environment was created with the ultimate goal of forcing [Sternberg] out," McVay wrote. However, because Sternberg was an unpaid RA and not a Smithsonian employee, the OSC lacked jurisdiction and did not pursue the matter. In August 2005, the subcommittee staff initiated its own investigation, resulting in the current report, which largely corroborates the OSC findings. In an email to The Scientist, NCSE's Matzke asserted that both investigations were politically motivated, with Souder being "the leading ID supporter in Congress" and OSC chief Scott Bloch having been "widely criticized for using the OSC office for right-wing culture wars."Ted Agres tagres@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:"Intolerance and the Politicization of Science and the Smithsonian," Staff Report, U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform, Museum of Natural History Sternberg Stokes, "Intelligent design study appears," The Scientist, Sept. 2004 Meyer, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117[2]:213-239, August 4, 2004. Republished online Aug. 28, 2004. C. Meyer for Science and Culture Ganguli, "Beating Up Intelligent Design," The Scientist, March 1, 2006 Giles, "Peer-reviewed paper defends theory of intelligent design," Nature Published online: Sept. 8, 2004; doi:10.1038/431114a Flores, "Journals and intelligent design," The Scientist, Feb. 28, 2005 '"Appendix to Intolerance and the Politicization of Science and the Smithsonian" (Cited email on page 31) Center for Science Education http://www.ncseweb.orgOffice of Special Counsel "Pre-Closure" letter to Sternberg Bloch