News & Analysis Physics World  December 2017
(ETH Zürich / Alessandro Della Bella)

Misconduct rocks ETH Zürich

Bullying allegations have resulted in the closure of the Institute for Astronomy at a top Swiss university, as Michael Banks reports

The executive board of one of Switzerland’s leading universities – ETH Zürich – has launched an independent enquiry in response to allegations of misconduct at its former Institute for Astronomy (IfA). The IfA was closed in August after several students raised concerns about the management practices of senior staff at the institute. According to a statement from ETH Zürich, the investigation will now take “a more detailed look” at the situation and that it could lead to “additional measures” being taken.

The problems at ETH Zürich came into the open in February when allegations were made by “several doctoral students” against a female professor who worked at the IfA. While the professor has not been identified by ETH Zürich, she has been named elsewhere as Marcella Carollo. According to the allegations, Carollo demonstrated “inept management conduct” towards her students.

A month later – at their own request – the students, who have not been named, were reassigned to a different supervisor. After the university’s executive board discussed the issues – which have not been made public by ETH Zürich – an agreement was reached that Carollo would be given support if she wanted to supervise doctoral students in the future.

According to its statement, ETH Zürich decided to close the IfA in August because Carollo was married to another professor in the IfA, Simon Lilly – a set-up that ETH Zürich says was “not ideal”. While the two researchers remain in the physics department at ETH Zürich, the rest of the IfA staff have been integrated into a newly created Institute for Particle Physics and Astrophysics.

“Having identified the problematic circumstances, the priority was to reform the inappropriate personnel structure as quickly as possible so as to rectify the situation,” the statement says. “Nowadays such a [husband-and-wife] pairing within the same institute would no longer be possible.” While ETH Zürich’s board “commended the prompt and appropriate action” that was taken, its enquiry will focus on how “poor management” can be quickly escalated higher up within the organization. “The alleged conduct falls well short of the standards we expect of our professors, and so we took swift action,” says ETH Zürich president Lino Guzzella. “The official enquiry allows us to take an even closer look at the facts and decide whether further measures still need to be taken.”

However, some astronomers have voiced concerns about how ETH Zürich has dealt with the situation and how the institution blamed it on the couple being married. Writing on Twitter, astronomer Jessie Christiansen from NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology says that ETH Zürich needs to “try harder”.

“As part of a married astronomer couple working at the same institute, I can assure you this [working alongside one’s spouse] is not the problem,” she wrote, adding that the issues rather emerge due to a “clear conflict of interest” such as a married couple supervising the same student or chairing the same committee. “I’d like to think we’re smart enough to put some protections in place that aren’t a blanket ban [on married couples],” she says.

Yet within days of ETH Zürich’s decision to launch an enquiry, 24 researchers – some of whom had been supervised by Carollo – published a letter in support of Carollo, whom they mentioned by name, pointing out that she and her colleagues built a “world class astronomy institute in less than a decade”. The authors of the letter add that many of Carollo’s students have successfully gained tenure-track positions and that she has been a strong promotor of women in astronomy. “If at times she comes across as a relentless task master, this owes to her commitment to her students and desire to maximize their career chances,” they write.

We urge all scientists to reflect on how they can be better supervisors

A week later almost 700 researchers had signed a separate open letter in support of the ETH students. “We note the substantial career risk incurred on those who have come forward to report such incidents, and we express our support for students and early-career researchers at ETH and everywhere else who have been victims of bullying and who want to be able to focus on their research,” says the letter. “We urge all scientists to reflect on how they can be better supervisors, and to commit to ongoing training and self-improvement in this area.” The letter calls on ETH Zürich to make the recommendations from the independent review public, adding that “bullying has no place in astronomy”.