Prominent Salk Institute researcher suspended amid sexual misconduct allegations

Inder Verma (Photo: Inder Verma)

SAN DIEGO — A prominent scientist and cancer researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla has been suspended over apparent sexual misconduct allegations.

Inder Verma, 70, was placed on leave by the Salk Institute’s board of trustees over the weekend, apparently after receiving a list of detailed questions last week from the magazine Science regarding allegations of sexual harassment.

The Indian-born Verma, hired at Salk in 1974, is also an adjunct professor at the University of California, San Diego, and a highly regarded gene therapist who completed his studies in India and Israel before completing his postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His suspension is another blow for the Salk Institute, which last year was accused of gender discrimination in three separate lawsuits filed by female employees.

As part of those lawsuits, Verma was ousted from his prestigious position as editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world’s top science journals, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported last year.

Neither Salk Institute officials nor Verma said exactly why the renowned scientist has been suspended, but the magazine Science reported over the weekend that the suspension was related to an investigation tied to an upcoming story a reporter from the magazine was working on.

The reporter apparently asked to interview Salk officials this week about sexual harassment allegations against Verma, to which the officials responded by asking for a detailed list of questions from the magazine, Science reported. Two days after receiving the list, Verma was placed on leave. In an email obtained by Science, Salk’s board of trustees chairman, Dan Lewis, said that Salk officials “recently became aware of allegations concerning” Verma.

“Consistent with Salk’s policies governing workplace conduct, the Institute has undertaken a formal investigation that is being led by an independent outside party,” Lewis wrote in the email sent to Salk employees and obtained by Science. “We have also learned that Science is preparing a story about Dr. Verma and related allegations. Earlier this week, the reporter presented the Institute with information about her story that included claims the Institute was not previously aware of. We take these allegations very seriously and have expanded the scope of the investigation.”

Lewis said that the board of trustees met Friday and decided to place Verma on administrative leave.

“He will not be performing scientific or administrative roles on behalf of the Institute during this period,” Lewis wrote.

In a statement issued to several media outlets by Verma’s lawyer, the married father and grandfather denied all allegations against him.

“I have never used my position at the Salk Institute to take advantage of others,” Verma said in the statement. “I have also never engaged in any sort of intimate relationship with anyone affiliated with the Salk Institute. I have never inappropriately touched, nor have I made any sexually charged comments, to anyone affiliated with the Salk Institute. I have never allowed any offensive or sexually charged conversations, jokes, material, etc. to occur at the Salk Institute.”

The trouble began for the Salk Institute last summer when biologists Vicki Lundblad, Katherine Jones and Beverly Emerson all filed separate lawsuits against the small but renowned institute near UCSD.

“After decades of trying to work within the administrative structure to resolve these issues, I agree with my colleagues that we can no longer turn a blind eye to the blatant discrimination that exists against female full professors in the Salk culture,” Emerson said when she filed her lawsuit last July.

Emerson alleged that, while the institute publicly touts its commitment to women in science, it privately operates as an antiquated boys club, undermining and marginalizing its tenured female professors.

Those lawsuits came before the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine published explosive stories about alleged serial sexual harassment by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Those stories are largely credited with starting the #MeToo movement in which women have felt empowered to share their stories of sexual harassment or more serious sexual mistreatment by powerful men in entertainment, politics, media and other fields.

Verma’s suspension appears to be the latest result of the #MeToo movement as Salk confirmed that it’s investigating allegations brought forward by the magazine Science.