News & Analysis Physics World  March 2018

Job offer for disgraced astrophysicist revoked

Cancelled contract The University of Turku in Finland has terminated an offer of employment to former Caltech astrophysicist Christian Ott (Caltech Astronomy)

The University of Turku in Finland has withdrawn a job offer to a disgraced astrophysicist following a backlash from members of the country’s astronomical community. On 1 February the university announced that it had given a two-year appointment to Christian Ott as a senior researcher in its physics and astronomy department. Ott – a theoretical astrophysicist – had resigned from his professorship at the California Institute of Technology last year following a suspension for harassing two female graduate students. However, following fierce criticism, the university withdrew its offer before Ott could take up the post, which was due to start on 1 March.

The controversy surrounding Ott began in late 2013 when he told his graduate student Io Kleiser that he did not want to work with her any more. While he gave Kleiser no reason, he admitted to her fellow graduate student Sarah Gossan that he had romantic feelings for Kleiser. The two women filed a complaint with the Caltech authorities in 2015 that led Caltech to suspend Ott for nine months – a suspension extended by a year after he violated its original terms. Last August, after a Caltech report determined that he would remain a divisive element on campus, Ott announced his resignation, which took effect on 31 December 2017.

The University of Turku post that had been offered to Ott involved no teaching or supervising responsibilities and was subject to a trial period of four months. Yet on learning about the offer, members of Finland’s astronomy and astrophysics community quickly circulated a statement deriding the decision. “Our concern and solidarity is first with victims of harassment, and with the right of all staff and students to work in a healthy and safe environment,” the statement noted.

“Ott’s hiring had been justified by his excellent scientific résumé, apparently neglecting that harassment can severely impact the chances of victims to fulfil their own scientific potential,” Till Sawala, an astronomer at the University of Helsinki who organized the letter with colleague Syksy Räsänen, told Physics World. University of Turku rector Kalervi Väänänen then decided last month to cancel Ott’s offer “after extensively hearing the scientific community”.

It is unclear what Ott, who did not respond to an e-mail request for comment, will do next. “The job market in astrophysics is highly competitive, and while scientific merits are clearly important, the ability not to harass one’s co-workers and students must be an essential qualification,” adds Sawala. “I also believe that everyone deserves a chance at eventual rehabilitation, and of course that includes Ott. However, rehabilitation is not achieved simply by moving to another country – it has to start with taking responsibility for one’s actions, and for the harm caused to those who suffered harassment.”

Peter Gwynne

Boston, MA