Astronomers victimized their colleagues – and put Sweden’s historical department in turmoil

An observation tower at Lund University in Sweden.Credit: Michael Persson / Alamy

According to two independent surveys commissioned in 2020 by the university, two astronomers from one of Sweden’s top research institutions, Lund University, have victimized, discriminated against or intimidated colleagues. The cases rocked the institution’s historical astronomical research division, Lund Observatory, in outcry.

The complaints that launched the investigations allege that the pair – Sofia Feltzing and Melvyn Davies – intimidated colleagues using their positions of power, and that Lund University officials did not act with sufficient force in the process. following several reports over the years. Although bullying and harassment are rife in academia, this case is unusual as it pits many members of a college division against two of its more senior faculty, alleging lasting and widespread harm.

Feltzing is an observational astronomer who occupies several influential roles across Europe, including that of Chairman of the Swedish National Committee for Astronomy. She denies some of the allegations in the investigation findings made against her, but agrees with those regarding two cases that she says could be considered victimization. Davies, a theoretical astrophysicist who studies planetary systems and star clusters, denies all of the claims against him.

Both state that they are actively working to improve the working environment at the observatory. They also note that in January, the university’s lawyers refused to initiate disciplinary proceedings against them, citing a lack of evidence. Feltzing has since filed complaints against two of its managers; investigations into these complaints are ongoing.

Due to the affair, Davies moved to Lund’s math department in January; Feltzing was working from home, but should be reinstated in the observatory. The plan to bring Feltzing back has not been well received by many there. Over the past year and a half, representatives of doctoral and master’s student groups have sent letters to the Dean of Science and Vice Chancellor of Lund, asking them to take further action. Faculty members also weighed in, “Insisting on a reintegration plan for a factual harasser without taking the safety and concerns of victims seriously puts astronomy seriously. [at Lund] risk of collapse, ”reads a protest letter from January 2021 signed by 11 senior executives and addressed to Erik Renström, the university’s vice-chancellor.

Renström said the university was taking steps to remedy the situation, including bringing in another senior administrator to oversee Feltzing’s reinstatement in the observatory. “In this case, we can observe that earlier, clearer and more robust measures would have been desirable and have probably saved many people from a lot of suffering,” he wrote in an email to Nature. “At the same time, the department must now look to the future, and a robust and sustainable management of the working environment is currently underway.”

Lund University has a policy stating that it does not tolerate victimization or harassment. Yet “it was a serial harassment problem,” explains Anders Johansen, an astronomer who headed the department of astronomy and theoretical physics, of which the Lund Observatory is part, from 2016 to 2020. He moved to the University of Copenhagen. , in part because of the stress of the case. Johansen says he received and tried to follow up on several complaints when he was a manager, but failed to progress; he compiled an informal tally from his own experience and interviews with former observatory leaders, which has totaled at least 36 complaints since 2008. Feltzing and Davies confirmed to Nature that they were aware of several complaints, in addition to those that prompted last year’s investigations, but declined to comment on the entire list.

Tumult in Lund

The investigations were triggered last September, when two observatory staff filed separate complaints against Feltzing and Davies. In the complaints, astronomers describe situations ranging from Feltzing belittling students and other speakers during scientific discussions, to Davies criticizing others’ research and intentionally excluding colleagues from scientific opportunities.

Follow-up investigations concluded in November and December that Feltzing had committed 16 acts of victimization or offensive discrimination, and that Davies had committed two acts of victimization. All of them constitute violations of Swedish Work Environment Act. These are the first complaints against Feltzing and Davies to come to any conclusions against them.

Last December, Feltzing herself filed formal complaints against the head of the observatory David Hobbs and Leif Lönnblad, head of the department of astronomy and theoretical physics. The resulting investigation examines the action they have taken regarding the complaints against Feltzing and is continuing. Hobbs and Lönnblad declined a request for Nature for comment.

A number of sources at the observatory said Nature they believe the university has let the problems escalate, damaging scientific output and causing anxiety. “Scientific activities are greatly affected,” said an astronomer who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “We are spending a lot of time exposing and documenting the situation, and all of our activities are suffering. The observatory has interrupted its series of seminars to avoid putting external speakers in a tense situation. Some employees have taken extended sick leave due to stress.

Renström says there is no evidence that scientific output has declined.

Bullying and victimization can have deep and lasting repercussions in academia, says Christina Björklund, an economic psychologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm who studies bullying at work. She stressed that she was speaking generally, and not specifically of the Lund Observatory case. “You should be able to get to your workplace without being attacked by your coworker,” she says. “Everyone should have a chance to be successful. She notes that rates of stress, depression and mental illness can be high not only among those who are bullied, but also among passers-by.

Problems escalate

Lund University is consistently ranked among the best research centers in Sweden. Astronomy in the town of Lund dates back almost three and a half centuries; the first observatory was built there in 1672, by the grandfather of the astronomer Anders Celsius, who gave his name to the temperature scale.

Many of the people who previously reported the harassment of Feltzing and Davies were students or post-docs who left the department by bicycle while professors stayed. One was Guido Moyano Loyola, a former postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at Lund. In 2018, he alleged that Feltzing and Davies bullied him and some of the other students; Moyano ended up quitting astronomy altogether, returning to his home country, Argentina, and working as a data scientist. “I was really heartbroken,” he says. An investigation of Moyano’s request by the university’s human resources representatives resulted in supervised meetings with him, Feltzing and Davies; both say they believed the situation was resolved through these meetings.

Anna Arnadottir, a student who graduated from Feltzing between 2004 and 2009, says her working relationship with Feltzing was “quite unhealthy” to the point that Arnadottir asked the department’s graduate director to intervene. During Arnadottir’s final year of PhD, all of his meetings with Feltzing had to have a third person present, says Arnadottir, who is now a research engineer at the observatory. Feltzing says she worked to change her behavior towards Arnadottir.

The controversy spills over into Swedish astronomy more widely. Feltzing technically remains chairman of the Swedish National Committee for Astronomy, but the committee’s vice-chairman has been leading its work since January, after the committee learned of the complaints against Feltzing. In June, the committee established a working group to review policies regarding its presidency.

Feltzing is also the principal investigator of a 20 million crown (US $ 2.3 million) grant to study galaxy formation awarded last year by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation in Stockholm, one of the sources of most prestigious scientific funding in Sweden. The foundation’s executive director, Göran Sandberg, said the grant was awarded to the university, and “it is therefore up to the university to manage the situation that arose, including deciding the leadership of the project. “. The grant is the subject of tense discussions within the Observatory on the role Feltzing should play in the project, given the conclusions against it.

Alarm bells ignored

The observatory’s problems erupted in May 2020, when a university-commissioned survey to probe the workplace climate found that “two senior professors … are described as controlling the department through behaviors such as ‘verbal aggressiveness, rude tone, employee control, caprices and offensive behavior’. The survey included interviews with the 49 employees of the observatory. The final report does not name the two senior professors involved, but Feltzing, Davies and Johansen were the observatory’s only senior professors at the time. The report concludes that 70% of the observatory’s employees said there had been harassment or intimidation.

“The content of the report which was submitted at the end of May of last year was alarming, and yet it did not sound the alarm,” said Colin Carlile, master’s student at the Observatory of Lund who is an experienced international research program manager and was previously Managing Director of European Spallation Source, a physics research facility under construction in Lund. “Swift and decisive action is always necessary in such circumstances, but it is clear that this does not always happen. “

Jesper Nielsen, a representative for masters students at the observatory, says things could go relatively well if Feltzing is reinstated in the department in a way that avoids those in direct conflict with her. “But if this is treated negligently and if her victims come in contact with her, then this is where the big problems will arise,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s possible to reinstate her well enough.

Others say that the Lund Observatory experiment is one that other institutions should not repeat. “If there is a zero tolerance policy,” says Johansen, “there has to be some form of consequence or responsibility.”

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