The Zurich Letters

Just time for a quick post following up my previous piece on the Bullying Scandal at ETH Zurich.

As pointed out in a comment on that post, a letter of support for one of the named Professors (Marcella Carollo) has been signed by a number of astronomers, including some prominent senior professors. That letter can be found here (PDF).

A version of that letter which has been annotated by Chris Lintott to draw attention to some of its shortcomings can be found here. I won’t add much to Chris’s comments, but will mention that a dropout rate of 30% of students funded by the UK  Science and Technology Facilities Council would lead to financial penalties on the institution responsible. Moreover, ETH Zurich is a prestigious institution with a highly selective admissions policy for postgraduate students and a high level of funding. It is not unreasonable to expect a high completion rate under these circumstances.

Other than that, the two main messages of the first letter seem to be (a) `some people did well so it must all be OK’ and (b) `the ends justify the means’. I can’t agree with either of these points. Reaction I have seen on social media to the letter have been overwhelmingly negative, to the extent that Prof. Bryan Gaensler has drafted an alternative letter, in support of the ETH Researchers, and is collecting signatures. You can find that letter here, where you can also find a list of more than 300 nearly 700 signatories across all walks of astronomical life. You can add your name to this letter at any time until 2359 UTC on Wednesday November 1st, after which the letter and list of signatories will then be delivered to the researchers affected by this sorry affair.

P.S. I’ll just mention that as well as attracting a very large number of visitors (hopefully not all of them lawyers), my original post on this matter is the first I have written to generate over a hundred comments. The previous record was 98.

UPDATE: There’s an item about the second letter here.

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14 Responses to “The Zurich Letters”

  1. James Dunlop Says:

    Good to see letter writing suddenly back in fashion! Both letters are a bit silly. Clearly stupid to claim a 30% failure rate in a PhD programme is fine. Also a bit silly to claim that the success of one’s students in their future career is irrelevant. But hey, its a bandwagon, so let’s jump on it.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, bullying is such a trivial and unimportant issue so why not?

    • Matthieu Bethermin Says:

      The second letter is not claiming that the success is irrelevant, but that it should not be obtained at all cost. We all know some groups, which are closer from the academic sweatshop than the nursery of happy, young, bright people, who are trained to spread later their skills to companies (and a bit in academia). In theory, Professors are here to train people (that is the job they are paid for), not to exploit a short-term contract manpower to build up their own glory. I know the ultra-competitive system is pushing us to behave in the first way, but this is probably a moral duty to resist against this logic even at the cost of making a slightly less good career.

      • James Dunlop Says:

        Indeed, but often the success of students in their future careers is, at least in part, the result of supervisors being *unselfish and supportive* – helping to provide a springboard by making sure first papers have the student as first author, putting students forward to give talks in place of themselves etc. I’m not defending what happened at Zurich, nor do I think bullying is trivial and unimportant, but I don’t think the current letter exchange is very helpful – presumably everyone on the planet is happy to boast they have signed the second letter (although I believe at least one person signed both!) but I think it over simplifies things. In my experience, most senior academics spend a lot of their time working tirelessly to help weaker students get their PhD.

      • telescoper Says:

        There is at least one name on both letters. Not sure what that gesture is supposed to mean..

      • Matthieu Bethermin Says:

        @James, I agree this is something complex and supervising student is a tricky task (I am just starting it and I am in deep reflexion about it). You really did great to train awesome scientists. I can imagine how much work it is to lead large research groups.

        My perception of the second letter was that it aims to show that the majority of astronomers do not see success as an excuse to everything. Concerning the double signature of an UK faculty, maybe the person is persuaded that the person in the specific ETH case is innocent (or it is exagerated), but still think there is a problem in academia with how we deal with bullying? As I read it, the second letter is a reaction to the message of the first one and is condamning bullying, but not a specific individual. So, it could be consistent.

      • “There is at least one name on both letters. Not sure what that gesture is supposed to mean..”

        There are people and companies which routinely donate to several or even all political parties. If one thinks of a donation as support, as helping those who represent one’s own opinions, then donating to all would more or less cancel out. But that is not the motivation here. Rather, it is to curry appreciation from all involved. No matter who comes to power, a debt will be owed to you and/or there might be fear that if you make the wrong choices, next year there will be no donation. Similarly, one might sign both letters just to keep all bases covered.

  2. One comment: Of the five “Postdocs and others mentored and supervised” mentioned in the letter of support, at least three did not work *under* the professor in question. Two were PhD students of her husband, one was a staff member. I don’t know about the other two. By contrast, I recognise about 10 former PhD students, former postdocs, ETH astronomy profs. on Gaensler’s letter.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Something has happened to the font on your blog, Peter, to turn all but that last one or two posts into italics.

  4. Luis Sanchez Says:

    What I find most distressing is the signatures of those PhD students who seem to be ok with their peers being grossly bullied.

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