Top Salk Institute Scientists File Gender-Bias Suit

FILE – This Oct. 3, 2013 file photo shows The Salk Institute, above the Pacific Ocean in San Diego. Vicki Lundblad and Katherine Jones, a pair of top scientists at the renowned research center has sued their employer in July 2017, alleging that they and other women have suffered long-term gender discrimination. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi,File)

SAN DIEGO (CN) – In the latest allegation involving a science-and-technology heavyweight and claims of discrimination against female employees, two top scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies say they are given fewer funding and research opportunities than their male counterparts.

Victoria Lundblad and Katherine Jones, two of only three women with the highest ranking “full professor with tenure” title funded by the research institute, claim in separate complaints filed in San Diego Superior Court this week the “systemic marginalization” of tenured women professors has resulted in a “lack of resources, opportunities for access to funding controlled by Salk and support of scientific discoveries.”

The professors claim the 28 men who hold the same title at the institute are not subject to the same pressures they face, working with less funding and fewer resources. They join the growing chorus of women in science and technology claiming discrimination in their respective fields – a national conversation which came to a head when Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ellen Pao brought a gender discrimination lawsuit against her former firm in 2012.

In a phone interview with Courthouse News, the scientists said the danger of not speaking out outweighed possible negative repercussions to their careers by choosing to sue.

“I want to compete on a level playing field for the same resources available to my colleagues,” Lundblad said.

“For a long time, I really didn’t want to do this. My mom and dad didn’t raise me to file a lawsuit; they raised me to be a scientist.”

Both professors have received top honors and accolades for their research.

Jones, a 30-year Salk veteran who’s spent her career researching cancer and HIV, is the longest-serving faculty member at Salk who does not have an endowed chair, which Jones says the institute uses to “measure the faculty’s value” and raise money for the endowed chair recipient’s research.

Lundblad said Jones has been told by employees at the institute’s development team that Jones’ research is too complicated to explain to private donors who could potentially fund her research. But the professor said the development team has “no problem” explaining research to donors who fund their male colleagues’ laboratories.

“I’ve been here 30 years at Salk and it’s a wonderful place, but the problem is we have a very male-dominated faculty and the presidency turns over frequently, so the guys pretty much have the run of the place. I don’t think they have felt the need to include women at the highest level, and there’s strong pressure on us to do more with less,” Jones said.

The scientists have also published two reports – one in 2003 which led to Lundblad’s hiring – and another in 2016 which influenced the decision to hire current Salk president Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn detailing Salk’s gender gap in supporting female scientists.

A woman scientist at Salk has not been promoted to a tenured-professor appointment since 2009, according to the complaints.

Lundblad, an elected member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, was hired by Salk in December 2003. She claims the institute engages in “explicit and implicit gender discrimination,” including only allowing the professor to present her research findings at the annual Salk faculty retreat twice over the past 13 years, while some male faculty members “have presented their work repeatedly year after year.”

The retreat is a critical opportunity for research faculty to present their findings and find funding sources to further their research.

“The Salk tenured women professors’ research is not presented and they are not given the same opportunities to share their important findings, receive accolades and, importantly, Salk’s development team fails to learn about their science to help with donors or funding,” the complaint states.

That lack of funding opportunity is further compounded by “constant pressure for at least five years by Salk senior administration to downsize her laboratory.”

Lundblad says even though she receives consistent funding from the National Institutes of Health, she, Jones and other tenured female professors have been asked to cut back, with the labs run by the women ranking as “three of the smallest research groups at Salk.”

“Salk only employs three women who are full professors, yet those same women professors are under constant pressure to reduce their labs, reducing the ability of these labs to conduct cutting-edge research. Salk then claims 100 percent of the Salk tenured women professors’ research is not on par with the men, who have access to extensive Salk-controlled financial resources which are not available to Salk tenured women professors,” the women claim.

Because of the pressure to downsize, Lundblad says her lab is “undervalued” and is less productive in terms of the number of scientific publications her staff can produce, all of which is important for competing for grants and outside funding.

The women also point out they did not receive any funding from two of the largest single donations ever made to the institute – $42 million and $25 million donated in 2013 and 2016 by the Helmsley Foundation – because the funding was controlled by another staff member who had “historically denied support to Salk-employed women.”

Money raised at the Salk Women & Science initiative has not benefited women scientists, Lundblad and Jones claim, with six of the seven money awards handed out going to labs run by male faculty, according to the complaint.

Salk issued a statement on the lawsuits, saying it is “committed to providing equal employment opportunities to all” and will “vigorously defend itself through the legal system against any allegations of gender discrimination with full confidence in prevailing.”

The institute pointed out Lundblad and Jones have received $5 million in funding over the past 10 years, though it is not clear how that figure stacks up against funding for male faculty. Salk’s Women & Science program has raised over $450,000 over the past five years to “support the advancement of women in science,” according to the statement.

The scientists are represented by Deborah Dixon with San Diego firm Gomez Trial Attorneys.


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