How a bullying scandal closed a historic astronomy division


The exterior at night of the Lund Observatory building.

The previous astronomy constructing at Lund College in Sweden.Credit score: Lund Observatory

At Lund College in Sweden this week, astronomers moved out of a constructing that was custom-built to carry telescopes and different artefacts from their 350 years of historical past, they usually relocated to a physics constructing down the street. That’s as a result of the astronomy division not exists, having been dissolved within the wake of a bullying scandal.

For greater than three years, Lund College directors have struggled to answer quite a few complaints that had been filed in opposition to two senior astronomy professors. The college in the end determined to assign the 2 professors to different departments and to disband the division of astronomy and theoretical physics, subsuming it as a division inside the physics division.

Many astronomers at Lund have instructed Nature that as a result of the college took so lengthy to discover a answer, it was practically unimaginable to do science at instances through the previous few years. The turmoil contributed to a number of distinguished astronomers leaving the college. Different main scientists stay, however the pressured reorganization has disrupted their careers and analysis. “That is an insane scenario,” says an astronomer who requested to stay nameless as a result of they’re nonetheless on the college.

Sven Lidin, the dean of science at Lund College who oversaw the modifications, says that he noticed no different manner ahead. “My makes an attempt to resolve the problems inside the present group had been unsuccessful, and, as a final resort, I made a decision {that a} reorganization was the one possibility left,” he wrote in an e-mail to Nature.

The reorganization has additionally upended the theoretical physics group at Lund, which had been a part of the prior division of astronomy and theoretical physics and now has additionally seen its members dispersed amongst different departments. “It was not solely the astronomers that had been affected by this — the entire of theoretical physics has now been damaged aside,” says Leif Lönnblad, a theoretical physicist on the college.

Different establishments have taken the intense step of reorganizing within the wake of a bullying scandal. In 2017, for example, ETH Zurich in Switzerland merged an astronomy institute with a physics institute — however excluded an astronomy professor accused of bullying.

At Lund, the scenario is putting for a way lengthy it has dragged on. Complaints in opposition to the 2 professors, Sofia Feltzing and Melvyn Davies, date again to a minimum of 2008 at Lund Observatory — the identify used to check with astronomy analysis at Lund College. A Might 2020 worker survey revealed the long-running tensions: it discovered that 70% of respondents on the observatory had noticed harassment and bullying of their office, though it didn’t identify the individuals allegedly accountable. A June 2021 article in Nature described the findings of two university-commissioned investigations that Feltzing and Davies had victimized, discriminated in opposition to or bullied colleagues.

Neither Feltzing nor Davies responded to Nature’s requests for remark.

A prolonged decision

Quickly after the 2020 worker survey was performed, numerous teams of senior teachers and graduate college students started interesting to the college to take motion.

A old telescope on display at the Lund Observatory.

A ‘meridian’ telescope that was utilized by Sweden’s first lady astronomer is on show at Lund’s former astronomy constructing. As researchers transfer out of the constructing, it’s unclear what is going to occur to it.Credit score: Lund Observatory

By 2021, Lidin had introduced in an administrator from outdoors the astronomy division to take cost of the observatory; one other one was introduced in for 2022. Each spent months interviewing observatory staff and talking with the labour unions representing Feltzing, Davies and others, who had been concerned due to Swedish office guidelines. However neither may apparently attain a decision.

In August 2022 — greater than two years after the issue grew to become well-known — Lidin instructed the division that “inside the present group, the deadlocks which exist are far too huge to be overcome in a reputable and sustainable manner”. Three months later, the college’s college board voted to dissolve the astronomy division, sending a lot of the astronomers to the physics division by 1 January 2023. Feltzing joined the college’s geology division, and Davies had earlier moved to the arithmetic division.

Feltzing maintained an workplace within the astronomy constructing for greater than a yr after the scandal went public, with some restrictions on how typically she may enter the constructing and the way a lot discover she had to offer. “We had been strolling in the identical corridors for the longest time,” says the astronomer who requested to stay nameless. “It was simply very unusual.”

The longer a bullying scenario drags on, “the extra traumatic the scenario turns into”, says Christina Björklund, a researcher who research bullying on the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Current analysis, together with the primary research of the prevalence of harassment in bullying in Swedish academia, has highlighted how universities must develop efficient responses, she says.

Many present and former members of Lund Observatory say that if the astronomy division needed to be dissolved, the physics division was essentially the most appropriate place for many of them to relocate to. However the drawn-out nature of the reorganization took an enormous toll. “It’s achieved plenty of injury,” says Paul McMillan, an astrophysicist who not too long ago left Lund College for the College of Leicester, UK. “It’s going to take time to rebuild.”

“It’s definitely true that beneficial time was misplaced in making the required modifications and that this affected instructing and science,” Lidin says.

Vacated house

Astronomy is a traditionally vital discipline of analysis in Lund, a metropolis whose first observatory was in-built 1672. Right this moment, the astronomy constructing on the college campus has telescopes on its roof and homes shows together with a well-known panorama of the Milky Method — compiled at Lund within the Nineteen Fifties — and a ‘meridian’ telescope that was utilized by Sweden’s first lady astronomer to measure stars crossing a north-south line within the sky.

Lund Observatory astronomers are taking a few of its historic artefacts within the transfer to the physics constructing, however most likely not all of them. Given this upheaval, the pressured relocation represents “the destruction of a tradition”, says Colin Carlile, a visitor researcher on the observatory. The college has not determined what to do with the house vacated by the astronomers.

Among the many careers affected is that of Rebecca Forsberg, who not too long ago acquired her PhD at Lund Observatory. Senior astronomers had been distracted by the office points and had much less time and a spotlight to work with college students, she says. And the college didn’t present adequate sources for college kids to navigate the scenario: “They’ve actually gone manner and above to make every part laborious for us,” she says. “I don’t really feel like they’ve protected us in any manner.” Forsberg plans to go away Lund Observatory and would possibly go away academia.

Lidin, the dean of science, says he can’t touch upon particular person staff however that “it’s attainable” that the turmoil inside Lund Observatory “has affected profession selections for a few of our workers”. He says he and different college officers “have achieved our utmost” to offer help for workers and college students alike, however that “given the scenario, I’m not solely shocked that there are those that felt we may have achieved extra”.

One high-profile departure is Anders Johansen, an professional in planetary formation who headed Lund’s astronomy division from 2016 to 2020 and so dealt with lots of the complaints about Feltzing and Davies. Johansen says that he didn’t have help from these greater up within the college to deal promptly and successfully with complaints. “Sooner or later it grew to become insufferable,” he says. “I didn’t desire a life the place I needed to take care of such issues on a regular basis.” Johansen moved his analysis group to the College of Copenhagen, however he visits Lund’s astronomers as soon as every week and can turn into a visitor professor there.

Astrophysicist Florent Renaud, who filed a criticism in opposition to Feltzing and Davies in 2020, had been seeking to go away Lund when he was supplied a number one place on the College of Strasbourg in France, his residence nation. “I picked the earliest date I may” as a begin date, he says. Now that he’s in Strasbourg, “it’s so vibrant, and it feels bizarre in any case these years of darkness.”

Renaud says that he’s clear-eyed concerning the prevalence of harassment and bullying in academia. “After I mentioned I’m going to go away Lund, individuals mentioned: ‘Good for you, however watch out since you discover harassers in all places.’ I mentioned, ‘I do know, however what’s totally different is the way in which they’re managed or dealt with.’”

Within the coming weeks, the astronomers who stay at Lund will unpack their containers within the physics constructing. Many, exhausted by the previous few years, try to look forwards. “My power might be finest and most productively spent doing actually good analysis and proving that astronomy in Lund is essential and related and has a future,” says one other astronomer who requested anonymity as a result of they’re nonetheless on the college.

“We’ve got a stronger-knit neighborhood due to this,” provides the primary astronomer who requested anonymity. “However I’d not hug the dean and say thanks.”


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