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.