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...

"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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