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Salk Faces Gender Discrimination Lawsuits

Two high-ranking female scientists at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, claim the center is run by a team of “good old boys.”

Jul 17, 2017
Jef Akst

Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CaliforniaWIKIMEDIA, X-WEINZAR

Update (December 22): Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn will step down as president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies following a spate of lawsuits against the center for gender discrimination and accusations that Blackburn has not done enough to implement changes, Science reports. “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,” Blackburn says in a statement. “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.”

Update (July 21): A third female researcher is suing the Salk Institute for Biological Studies for gender discrimination. Beverly Emerson joins Vicki Lundblad and Katherine Jones in filing lawsuits against the institution, claiming that she and other female researchers have received lower pay, less funding, and slower promotion rates than their male colleagues, Science reports. 

In her suit, Emerson alleges that administrators at Salk, including President Elizabeth Blackburn, “have known about this discrimination, yet done absolutely nothing to stop it.” Emerson, Lundblad, and Jones are three of four female full professors at Salk.

Vicki Lundblad and Katherine Jones, both full professors at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, are suing the research center for long-term gender discrimination, The San Diego Union-Tribune reports. The researchers allege that the institute is an “old boys club” with “a culture where women are paid less, not promoted and denied opportunities and benefits simply because they are women.”

“We have great colleagues at the Salk, but we do not compete on a level playing field (when it comes to internal money),” Lundblad tells The San Diego Union-Tribune. “We do poorly largely because we don’t get a chance to apply.”

Specific claims include that Salk administrators have not promoted any women to the rank of full professor since 1999; just four of nearly three dozen full professors at Salk are women.

Lundblad and Jones claim they also felt personally pressured to decrease the size of their laboratories, despite bringing in their own research funding. Jones’s lawsuit notes that the institute continually cut her lab budget, and Lundblad’s suit claims that she and other female professors have regularly been asked to reduce their operating budgets. Each runs a lab with just four employees, much less than the 10- to 15-person staff that is more common for high-level faculty, The Union-Tribune reports. Jones adds that she is one of the lowest paid members of the faculty.

The lawsuits, which name 50 individual defendants, also allege that the institute has not made serious changes in response to proposals made by molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, who has led the institute since late 2015, and that many senior male faculty have made disparaging remarks about the institute’s president.

The Salk Institute responded in a statement, saying “Drs. Jones and Lundblad, whose laboratories have received over $5 million in support from the institute over the past 10 fiscal years, have been treated generously by the institute, including relative to their male peers,” according to The Union-Tribune. “Each scientist’s lucrative compensation package is consistent with well-recognized metrics that have been applied to all Salk faculty in a nondiscriminatory manner.”

(Hat tip: GenomeWeb)

Correction (July 17): This story has been updated to reflect that there are four female full professors at Salk, not three, as stated in the San Diego ReaderThe Scientist regrets the error.

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