Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tenure and Behavior

There's a lively group of posts over at ScienceBlogs regarding astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez's denial of tenure at Iowa State. He and others claim it is because he supports intelligent design (ID) . His critics claim that Gonzalez's work was beginning to market ISU as an "intelligent design school."

This reminds me of another publicized tenure dispute in February. So far, James Sherley's efforts to earn tenure at MIT have been unsuccessful. He endured a 12 day fast
over claims of racism in the tenure process before ending it in February. From an outsider's perspective, these claims do not seem without merit, but this case may not simply be a matter of racism. (Don't misunderstand me, racism is NEVER simple.)

Last June, Dr. Sherely wrote an opinion piece for the Boston Globe offering a perspective that embryonic stem cell research is untenable, immoral and a waste of money. Sherley's research focuses on the proliferative capacity of certain kinds of adult stem cells. I saw him give an interview talk at the University of Washington last year, was skeptical of some of his claims, but also identified some important findings from his work. By being vocal about the stem cell issue, he has assumed a position of scientist and public commentator on science - this is a role I would like to pursue! (Clearly, I have a different perspective on this issue than he.) As I understand it, every other faculty member in his department supports embryonic stem cell research, and Sherley has had personal clashes with them (including with the department chair's wife) about his views.

It is admirable that he is willing to take a minority viewpoint on a controversial issue. Especially since this viewpoint is based on a personal religious faith that is sometimes viewed as a weakness in science. I wonder if Sherley's minority views were actually more important in this decision than his minority race. That the tenure process is closed-door suggests that we will never know.

A talk I attended yesterday afternoon might shed some light on this issue. Brian Martinson, the first author of a highly cited Nature article titled, "Scientists Behaving Badly," spoke about how the supply and demand for science workers is heavily skewed toward the supply side. There is material in that talk sufficient for several more posts, but one of his central theses is that science has reached a level of detrimental competitiveness. this does not just play out at the tenure-granting level, but in the funding process, publications and even in areas of research integrity. I wonder if we are only at the front end of controversial and highly publicized cases of claims of injustice. If so, maybe we all had better look at whether the practice of science is prepared for a cultural sea change.

---Update 5/18/07; 2100 hrs PDT---

I've noticed a good amount of traffic to this post. If you are interested in reading some of the original correspondence by and to Dr. Sherley, visit this file directory. Of particular note are his open letters for support and the tenure committee's statement of facts about Sherley's tenure seeking process. Other letters detail such information as lab space square footage and details from Sherley's hunger strike. Thanks to the commenter (below) for leading me to this reference.


Anonymous said...

Most of Sherley's colleagues who work with stem cells work with adult stem cells, and they financially supported his work in his pretenure career - see and

thomas said...

It may be true that Dr. Sherley's colleagues use adult stem cells, but the following statement by Sherley in Celebrate Life suggest that there is more to this issue than race.

"I initially attributed the chair’s unfair decision to racism that was aggravated by a personal conflict of interest on the part of the chair and his wife, who is also a faculty member in the department, and has manifested as irregularities in the chair’s treatment of my research program, my tenure case and me."

In a separate statement Sherley indicates that his views opposing ES cell research are minority viewpoints at MIT. The reality is the ES cells are expensive and difficult to grow. It is probably for that reason that other scientists at MIT use adult stem cells.

Another link that details more of this case is from a blog on

thomas said...

To clarify the statement that Sherley's colleagues financially supported his work, it is important to understand how certain grants are awarded.

The Tech, MIT's student newspaper reported May 15 that:

"much of Sherley's research funding was obtained from grants on which Professor Linda Griffith, whom Sherley charged as an impetus in the denial of his tenure, served as the principal investigator."

This means that Sherley was part of a team that wrote one or more grants. He probably wrote his own sections, and depending on the type of proposal, his section could have been scored by the review committee on its own.

thomas said...

Of significant note is that the first link posted above by 'Anonymous' can be viewed here. It may not work to cut and paste it from some browsers.

This letter is written by the Biological Engineering Department faculty and clarifies many of the misstatements (including by me in the previous comment!) For example, the Griffith grant(s) did NOT include Sherley in the original proposal, thus he cannot claim that funding source as original support for his own work.

The letter is a statement of fact and can do little to address the claims of racism. It does provide a very nice glimpse into the tenure-granting process, however.

Drugmonkey said...

The Chomsky letter in that directoryh is really interesting. As you say, though, the insight into the tenure process is fantastic. I've seen the issue of "the minority hire" come up in several cases back when I was a grad student. In those cases, the "dean" (or other extra-departmental unit) made available funds external to the usual process resulting in a lack of departmental buy-in for the candidate. I can see some of those factors here in the "space" issue.

Another insight, is into the advocates/detractors spectrum of analysis. Sherley seems, frankly, like a bit of a pill. Not that he wasn't justified but the whole embryonic/adult stem cell plus religious motivation thing is a clue. As is the freaking hunger strike. And then there is his letter to Science which, whether I agree with the argument or not, is a bit out there in tone. Hard to know which came first, the nutty ranting or the tenure denial but there is some reason here to believe he's a bit of a nutjob.

The takeaway here is, yeah, feels good to rant and do your thing but at some point there are some careerism issues that come into play. This kind of behavior makes it hard to generate friends.

Finally, Sherley seemingly didn't get the pubs that were expected. The takeaway message here is that you don't want to be playing catch-up trying to argue that, well, these particular papers are so great that they make up for the 1/4 pub rate. Similarly, if you are in another type of situation, 20 papers in mid-ranked journals may be of little account if the local standard is Science/Nature. The point is not that I agree with arbitrary standards but that if you don't give your advocates what they need to work with you are screwed...