UPDATE: This issue is mentioned by Gilliard here, and others here and here. I view the assumptions of these bloggers to pile on with no evidence a little disturbing, but I think Gilliard is close to the point in a way, as I will discuss below. Even if this issue is not truly a gender issue, MIT’s record kind of makes it one by default. Also, two sentences added at end from original draft
We may shed some light on a topic. Or not. Allows us to put on our serious pants and wade into the internecine world of scientific politics. We will endeavor to teach by example how it is essentially impossible to illuminate anything in a short newspaper article. The article in question we will deal with is here. The article is from Saturday’s Boston Globe and deals with a recent dust-up at MIT concerning the attempted hiring of a new female faculty member. MIT for the last several years has been at the center of many controversies involving the hiring and support of female faculty members, probably deservedly so in some instances and by reputation only in others. We will not address those issues here.
The basics of the recent problem are as follows:
1) An MIT institute in conjunction with the Biology Dept. endeavors to recruit a young female scientist by the name of Alla Karpova. Ms. Karpova is described as budding star and has accolades to prove it, along with an interesting and cutting edge approach to the study of brain connectivity and function.
Disclaimer: I know Ms. Karpova. For the sake of my own anonymity, I will not discuss this further, save to suggest that I feel my objectivity is not compromised by this fact. I am only discussing this matter as an example.
3) 11 Female faculty at MIT send letter to MIT President Susan Hockfield decrying the failure in recruitment and asserting that “a powerful colleague, a Nobel laureate [Susumu Tonegawa], of interfering with the university’s efforts to hire a rising female star in neuroscience.” Dr. Tonegawa is himself the head of another Neuroscience Institute at MIT, the Picower Inst. for Learning and Memory. The Picower is home to some very accomplished scientists.
4) An additional letter was sent to Hockfield from Prof. Ben Barres at Stanford after Dr. Barres heard from Ms. Karpova during an interview at Stanford. What we do not learn from the article is that Prof. Barres is an eloquent and forceful critic of sexism in science. He happens to be both an alum of MIT, a prominent neuroscientist and a transgendered individual giving him both incredibly unique insight into the situation at hand as well as a possible agenda. I only remark upon this as something quite difficult to just slip in for the authors of the Globe piece. The third quantity on that the list would only appear to be relevant after an in depth treatment of Dr. Barres’ experience and advocacy against sexism, but such a discussion could appear to poison the well for some readers as to Dr. Barres’ motivation for writing his letter. Instead readers are left to guess as to his involvement. This is not necessarily a critique of the piece, just an example at complexity left unremarked.
5) Dr. Tonegawa is claimed to have essentially bullied Ms. Karpova as he viewed her as a competitor to his own interests and not as a colleague even though the Picower and McGovern Institutes share the same building. The article plays “he said/she said” with this accusation, and perhaps this is its only recourse. Dean of Science Robert Silbey claims diplomatically about Tonegawa:
“Is he competitive? Yes. What is he competitive for? To make Picower the best in the world. Does that get on other people’s nerves? Yes.” This is of course his job, but this statement completely glosses over the implicit power inequality between the Nobel Prize winning head of an Inst. and a new hire. Is there any doubt as to the dynamic?
6) Six faculty of the Picower also wrote a letter to Hockfield in support of Tonegawa described in this passage:
“They wrote that Karpova asked Tonegawa whether he would collaborate with her, and he said that he would not.
“We feel that Susumu is being unfairly maligned, and we wish to express our strong support of him,” they wrote. “This is not a gender issue, and to portray it as such sets back the cause of women scientists.”
The letter also says that punishing Susumu would have “far-reaching negative consequences” and would endanger future funding for the institute Tonegawa oversees.”
This is essentially misdirection from the cosigners of the letter. MITs issues with women faculty make this by default an gender issue, regardless of the specific intent. Why couldn’t MIT recruit this specific female applicant? There appeared to be a power structure in place that was not collegial, given that it Tonegawa expressed in writing that he did not desire to collaborate. The authors of the Globe piece take care to note that the supporting faculty are all members of the Institute of which Tonegawa is head. This is probably on purpose but is as far as they can go. The stance of Tonegawa’s supporters may appear to be reasonable, and perhaps would be in regards to other circumstances, however Mr. Tonegawa’s reputation, to be kind, is abominable, and as such, his statement of non-collaboration and the fact that he viewed her as a possible competitor and not a colleague can not be taken as neutral. Of course this is my opinion, but most likely the opinion of many scientists. We will not deal in rumor on this issue, but I will say that Dr. Tonegawa is a scientist who’s reputation is worse than any I know relative to his importance, and it is bad on numerous fronts. This is a difficult position for the authors as they cannot just say: “everybody in the world thinks this guy is a world class a-hole and then some.” The authors do provide the view of Tonegawa as not the best guy quotes of other scientists such as “Most people would say that he is very smart and charming and a very difficult person to deal with. He is not a team player.” In this case, without getting someone to go on record with the perfect money quote, the authors are left no chance of getting the general perception of Dr. Tonegawa across.
7) The conflicting views of the issue are summed up in this section:
Barres’s letter also said that in addition to Tonegawa, Silbey, the science dean, advised Karpova not to come to MIT. Barres also wrote that Tonegawa told her “if she came he would do his best to block her success, including blocking access to the animal facility that he claims to have control over.”
Silbey said that’s not true, and contended that he told Karpova he wanted her to come to MIT. He said the overlap of her research and Tonegawa’s would make it important for her to establish her independence in order to win tenure.
What I find interesting here is the fact that Dr. Barres letter relied solely on hearsay from Ms. Karpova. However, I would add that I find Silbey’s quote to support Barres and not Sibley’s own assertion that he was supportive of Ms. Karpova. I submit some alternate takes on “important for her to establish her independence in order to win tenure.” Sibley could have been suggesting to Karpova that collaboration with Tonegawa could have been seen as hurting her appearance as independent, something important for scientists as they climb the career ladder. I don’t think I am going out on a limb, however, to suggest that this perception of independence has most likely been used in the past to denigrate female scientists. This is neither here not there with only a single quote to think about. However, the statement could also be taken by Ms. Karpova to mean that her stated research program would not cut it at MIT, as she would already have a known competitor working in a similar area. In this case “independent” could have been read as “unique,” which Ms. Karpova could clearly not be, no matter the novelty of her approach as Dr. Tonegawa himself had defined her as a competitor.
8) Finally, as a young and powerless scientist for whom others are going to bat, or in the cynical view being used to further other’s agenda, Ms. Karpova does not really have the freedom to give her entire side of the story and does not comment extensively in the article. I think we can all accept the fact that in these cases, the whistleblowers/accusers always get the shaft from the system, as they get tossed into the “problem” pile. This is where my personal view of the situation comes in. There is no way this case is complete bullshit. Reputation alone in this case would be strong enough for me to believe something untoward had gone on with Tonegawa. If the same words and actions had come from another scientist with a different reputation, the conclusions could have been different. The same goes for Ms. Karpova. This means the article could be read anyway you want. However, my personal knowledge of Ms. Karpova, together with my understanding of Dr. Tonegawa’s behavior gives me enough evidence that something shitty has happened to her and it is right for this to blow up in MIT’s face.