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Sexual Politics and Science: Two Predicaments

A Matter of Conscience Editor's Note (March 31). The April issue of The Scientist includes an Opinion entitled "A Matter of Conscience" in which Alexander McPherson laid out his objections to sexual harassment training at the University of California at Irvine. In the meantime McPherson has participated in the training, for reasons given in the update below. The Opinion article follows the update. My conflict with the University of Califo

Apr 1, 2009
Alexander McPherson and May C. Morris

A Matter of Conscience

Editor's Note (March 31). The April issue of The Scientist includes an Opinion entitled "A Matter of Conscience" in which Alexander McPherson laid out his objections to sexual harassment training at the University of California at Irvine.

In the meantime McPherson has participated in the training, for reasons given in the update below. The Opinion article follows the update.

My conflict with the University of California at Irvine ceased months ago to be over sexual harassment training. Instead it devolved into a controversy over how the university could use a grant, in my case an R01 from the National Institutes of Health, to compel faculty to comply with an arbitrary administrative edict. In greatly condensed form, this is what happened.

The university, having declared me no longer the principal investigator on my grant, contrived matters so that the grant was threatened by NIH with termination on March 25. I appealed to the appropriate authorities at the NIH the unfairness of this. I was, after all, the NIH designated PI. It was I who developed the successful grant proposal, and I who would carry out the research. The university's role in obtaining the grant was minimal at best.

NIH said that it could do nothing other than terminate the grant. The agency informed me that an NIH grant is made, in a strictly legal sense, to the university alone, not to the investigator, and the university has the authority to do as it wishes vis-à-vis the PI. Thus the NIH and other funding agencies have allowed research grants, with no protection of the PI, to become blunt instruments to be used by university administrators to force funded researchers to do their will, however arbitrary or perverse that might be.

Because termination of my NIH grant would be followed by termination of employment of my two laboratory colleagues of (collectively) 35 years, there was little choice for me but to participate in the online sexual harassment program, a program which continues to be a sham and, as noted by the University of California, Los Angeles Academic Senate, "an affront to an educational institution such as UC."

In my view this outcome represents a dangerous precedent. As our own campus committee on academic freedom has suggested, by interfering with the rights of faculty to hold grants, the university is violating the rights of tenure and the fundamental principles of academic freedom. We, as tenured faculty, have the right to be free of interference in our teaching and our research. Should the interference practiced by the UCI administration be allowed to stand, then it has ominous portent for the freedom of academics everywhere in the United States.

***** Original Opinion *****

I have refused the sexual harassment training imposed on me by the University of California at Irvine (UCI). This has little to do with the acknowledged problem of sexual harassment, but much to do with the dignity of the individual and his or her freedom from coercive behavioral training. My decision to resist the training was not a matter of cultural politics, but a matter of conscience.

The training program, which the University acknowledges is seriously flawed, is insulting to the intelligence at best, a demeaning fraud at worst. The argument that sexual harassment training is no different than training in the handling of radioactive materials is specious in the extreme. Sexual harassment exists and should be dealt with in the same manner as any other civil or criminal misbehavior. The heavy-handed approach that the University has chosen to deal with the issue, however, has only encouraged derision and bred resentment.

The situation has taken a dramatic and unfortunate turn. Lesser measures having failed, the Research Office at UCI wrote a letter (dated November 25) to the NIH advising them that I could not serve as PI on my recently awarded NIH RO1 grant because I was not trained in sexual harassment prevention. The vice chancellor of research informed my program director that she, with the approval of the NIH, would name a new PI to oversee my research. I was informed by the UCI Research Office only 10 days later that the letter had been sent, and then, only after being confronted with the fact.

"My decision to resist the training was not a matter of cultural politics, but a matter of conscience." -Alexander McPherson

In a letter to the executive vice chancellor I vigorously protested that to disturb or disrupt the trust between PI and funding agency can only be interpreted as a malicious and petty action. The great danger is that this precedent, if supported by the NIH, will resound through every university, college, and research institution in California. UCI is attempting to use interference with federal grants to compel researchers to conform to state edicts and local management policy as interpreted by its administration. If the NIH were to assume the role of enforcer in my case, then it would be obliged to do so at every institution, public and private.

Whatever one feels about state-mandated training, it should cause visceral alarm to scientists everywhere that local administrations could claim jurisdiction over who may hold research grants, and under what arbitrary strictures.

Alexander McPherson is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, School of Biological Sciences.

Opportunity Denied

Should I induce my baby prematurely or risk having it on the train, so I can have an equal opportunity of being interviewed for promotion?

While watching my growing belly, I decided to submit my application to what we call in France a "senior director" or "senior PI" (director of research). This basically confirms your position as a group leader (which I've been now for four years), significantly changes your income and, of course, your "label" when you apply for funding, as well as opening many doors for one's career.

I have had reasonable success throughout my career. I was awarded a Medal by the CNRS a couple of years ago to encourage my progression, although that never came with any other form of support, such as funding for my lab. I'm now at about the right point of my career, and at the right age, to apply for a director of research position.

The application procedure of the CNRS requires that a written form of the candidates' research program and career track be evaluated. I submitted this in early January. It also required—and this is a sine qua non condition—that you be interviewed for 15 minutes in Paris during one single week of the year. It was recently decided that the week would be March 9-13. Unfortunately, my baby is due on March 10th.

In spite of my condition, and the challenges to remain active and apply for the position, the only solutions I've been offered are: (1) 'to risk having the baby in the train or during the interview;' (2) 'to induce the baby prematurely,' or to (3) 'give up my promotion and remove my application.' Under no circumstances will the authorities change the date of my interview, as "it would not be fair to other candidates to make an exception."

I know of several other women who have chosen solution (1) or (2) over the past years in order to have their interview like any other. But is this really the price we should have to pay for equal opportunity?

May C. Morris is a staff scientist at the CNRS Research Center of Macromolecular Biochemistry in Montpellier, France.

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