Smithsonian Scientist Was Demoted for Views Critical of Darwinian Evolution

Robert Crowther

The House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources has issued its official report on the investigation into the harassment and discrimination against biologist Dr. Richard Sternberg. (for more background see here). The congressional report bluntly states: The staff investigation has uncovered compelling evidence that Dr. Sternberg’s civil and constitutional rights were violated by Smithsonian officials. Posted here is the Executive Summary of the report. The full report can be downloaded here, and the appendix can be downloaded here.
In January 2005, an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal first raised public awareness about disturbing allegations that officials at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) had retaliated against museum Research Associate (RA) Richard Sternberg because he allowed publication of an article favoring the theory of intelligent design in a biology journal.1 A well-published evolutionary biologist with two doctorates in biology, Dr. Sternberg claimed that after publication of the article, his colleagues and supervisors at the NMNH subjected him to harassment and discrimination in an effort to force him out as a Research Associate.

In November of 2004, Dr. Sternberg filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the agency charged with “protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisal for whistleblowing.” The OSC eventually found evidence to corroborate Dr. Sternberg’s complaint, concluding that “[i]t is… clear that a hostile work environment was created with the ultimate goal of forcing” Dr. Sternberg out of the Smithsonian. Despite this finding, the OSC was unable to pursue its investigation due to a question of jurisdiction. In August of 2005, subcommittee staff initiated their own investigation into the possible mistreatment of Dr. Sternberg by the Smithsonian. During their investigation, staff met with Dr. Sternberg and senior Smithsonian officials, and reviewed internal emails provided by the Smithsonian in response to requests from the subcommittee.
The staff investigation has uncovered compelling evidence that Dr. Sternberg’s civil and constitutional rights were violated by Smithsonian officials. Moreover, the agency’s top officials–Secretary Lawrence Small and Deputy Secretary Sheila Burke–have shown themselves completely unwilling to rectify the wrongs that were done or even to genuinely investigate the wrongdoing. Most recently, Burke and Small have allowed NMNH officials to demote Dr. Sternberg to the position of Research Collaborator, despite past assurances from Burke that Dr. Sternberg was a “Research Associate in good standing” and would be given “full and fair consideration” for his request to renew his Research Associateship. 2 The failure of Small and Burke to take any action against such discrimination raises serious questions about the Smithsonian’s willingness to protect the free speech and civil rights of scientists who may hold dissenting views on topics such as biological evolution.
Major findings of this staff investigation include:

  • Officials at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History created a hostile work environment intended to force Dr. Sternberg to resign his position as a Research Associate in violation of his free speech and civil rights. There is substantial, credible evidence of efforts to abuse and harass Dr. Sternberg, including punitively targeting him for investigation in order to supply a pretext for dismissing him, and applying to him regulations and restrictions not imposed on other researchers. Given the factual record, the Smithsonian’s pro-forma denials of discrimination are unbelievable. Indeed, NMNH officials explicitly acknowledged in emails their intent to pressure Sternberg to resign because of his role in the publication of the Meyer paper and his views on evolution. On September 13, 2004, Dr. Jonathan Coddington, chair of the zoology department, wrote to crustacean curator Dr. Rafael Lemaitre that he could not find a legal basis for terminating Sternberg, but added: “I suppose we could call him on the phone and verbally ask him to do the right thing and resign?” 3 A few hours later, Dr. Lemaitre responded that “a face to face meeting or at least a ‘you are welcome to leave or resign’ call with this individual, is in order.” 4 Finally, in an email on October 6, 2004, Dr. Coddington (in his capacity as Dr. Sternberg’s “supervisor”) stated that he was planning to meet with Dr. Sternberg to convey the message “that if he had any class he would either entirely desist or resign his appointment.” 5 Clearly, the NMNH management was trying to make Dr. Sternberg’s life at the Museum as difficult as possible and encourage him to leave, since they knew they had no legal grounds to dismiss him.
  • In emails exchanged during August and September 2004, NMNH officials revealed their intent to use their government jobs to discriminate against scientists based on their outside activities regarding evolution. For example, Dr. Hans Sues, Associate Director for Research and Collections, suggested in emails on August 30, 2004, and again on September 9, 2004, that Dr. Sternberg would never have been appointed as an RA if Smithsonian officials had known about his non-governmental activities regarding evolution. Sues even blamed the scientist who nominated Sternberg as a Research Associate for not adequately investigating his background: “Sternberg is a well-established figure in anti-evolution circles, and a simple Google search would have exposed these connections.” 6 The clear implication was that had a background check been conducted on Sternberg’s non-governmental activities, he would have been barred from being a Research Associate. Given the attitudes expressed in these emails, scientists who are known to be skeptical of Darwinian theory, whatever their qualifications or research record, cannot expect to receive equal treatment or consideration by NMNH officials. As a taxpayer-funded institution, such blatant discrimination against otherwise qualified individuals based on their outside views and activities raises serious free speech and civil rights concerns. With regard to Dr. Sternberg, this discriminatory attitude makes it all-but-impossible for him to be fairly considered for reappointment when his current term as Research Associate ends in 2007. Indeed, NMNH officials expressed in their emails a clear expectation that Dr. Sternberg would not be reappointed as a Research Associate after expiration of his current appointment. True to their statements at the time, NMNH officials have recently notified Dr. Sternberg that they will not renew his position as a Research Associate. Rather, they will only permit him to continue his research at the Smithsonian as a Research Collaborator–a demotion from his previous position. 7
  • The hostility toward Dr. Sternberg at the NMNH was reinforced by anti-religious and political motivations. Dr. Sternberg’s OSC complaint describes efforts to discover or disparage his supposed religious and political beliefs, and the OSC investigation concluded that there was “a strong religious and political component to the actions taken after the publication of the Meyer article.” The emails reviewed by subcommittee staff corroborate this finding. In a memo prepared on February 8, 2005, NMNH scientist Marilyn Schotte admitted that after publication of the Meyer paper, Dr. Coddington wanted to know “if Dr. Sternberg was religious.” Dr. Schotte further admitted telling Coddington that Sternberg “was a Republican.” Schotte even conceded that Coddington may have asked her whether Sternberg “was a fundamentalist” and whether “he was a conservative.” Dr. Schotte insisted that by asking such questions “Dr. C. was not being judgmental, only curious.” 8 But given the demonstrably hostile atmosphere toward Sternberg at the NMNH during the period in question, there is nothing innocuous about an official with supervisory authority inquiring into Sternberg’s religious and political beliefs. The email traffic also substantiates Sternberg’s concern about a viscerally anti-religious culture existing at the Museum. For example, on February 22, 2005, NMNH Research Associate Sue Richardson sent an email of solidarity to Dr. Coddington regarding the Sternberg situation. She complained about the time she spent living in the “Bible Belt,” mockingly reporting that “the most fun we had by far was when my son refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because of the ‘under dog’ part…” 9 Would similar expressions of disparagement have been tolerated by Smithsonian officials if directed at a racial minority?
  • NMNH officials conspired with a special interest group on government time and using government emails to publicly smear Dr. Sternberg; the group was also enlisted to monitor Sternberg’s outside activities in order to find a way to dismiss him. In cooperation with the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education (NCSE), Museum officials attempted to publicly smear and discredit Dr. Sternberg with false and defamatory information. While NMNH officials have the right to criticize scientific views with which they disagree, using government time and resources to publicly smear with false information someone whom they supervise is an abuse of their authority as government employees. In addition, Dr. Sues promised the director of the NCSE on August 26, 2004, that “[f]rom now on, I will keep an eye on Dr. (von) Sternberg, and I’d greatly appreciate it if you or other NCSE specialists could let me [know] about further activities by this gentleman in areas poutside [sic] crustacean systematics.” 10 The clear purpose of having the NCSE monitor Sternberg’s outside activities was to find a way to dismiss Sternberg. Dr. Sues hoped that the NCSE could unearth evidence that Sternberg had misrepresented himself as a Smithsonian employee, which would have been grounds for dismissal as a Research Associate.
  • Secretary Small and Deputy Secretary Burke have exhibited a head-in-the-sand attitude toward wrongdoing at their agency; they have engaged in stonewalling and spin rather than dealing forthrightly with the discrimination that has occurred. In Deputy Secretary Burke’s most recent response dated May 3, 2006, she acknowledged that Dr. Sternberg’s viewpoint on evolution sparked “strong disagreement” among other scientists at the NMNH, but insisted that “[w]hile the tone of the disagreement between scholars may seem harsh, disagreement does not equal discrimination.” 11 However, the issue is not the disagreement of Smithsonian scientists with Dr. Sternberg’s views on evolution, but rather their effort to use their official powers to punish Dr. Sternberg by seeking to remove him as a Research Associate, and their effort to publicly smear him with false information on government time using government emails. More broadly, NMNH officials have made clear their intent to prevent any scientist publicly skeptical of Darwinian theory from ever being appointed as a Research Associate, no matter how sterling his or her professional credentials or research. This is discrimination, plain and simple. The abject failure of the Secretary and Deputy Secretary to protect the basic rights of Dr. Sternberg to a civil work environment is indefensible.

Because of the Smithsonian’s continued inaction in the Sternberg case, Congress should consider statutory language that would protect the free speech rights regarding evolution of scientists in the Smithsonian and other federally-funded institutions. Since the treatment of Dr. Sternberg came to light in early 2005, evidence has accumulated of widespread discrimination against other qualified scientists who dissent from Darwinian theory, making further violations by federal agencies likely. While the majority of scientists embrace Darwinian theory, it is important that neither federal funds nor federal power be used to punish or retaliate against otherwise qualified scientists merely because they dissent from the majority view.
1 David Klinghoffer, “The Branding of a Heretic,” The Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2005.
2 Letter from Sheila Burke to Rep. Mark Souder, May 3, 2006.
3 Jonathan Coddington, “Re: Upcoming in Helsinki,” September 13, 2004, 10:51 AM, email to Rafael Lemaitre and Hans Sues.
4 Rafael Lemaitre, “Re: Upcoming in Helsinki,” September 13, 2004, 1:46 PM, email to Jonathan Coddington and Hans Sues.
5 Jonathan Coddington, “Re: Research Associate sponsor,” October 6, 2004, 1:29 PM, email to Hans Sues.
6 Hans Sues, “Re: Reply [3],” September 9, 2004, 10:57 AM, email to Frank Ferrari.
7 Richard Vari, “RE: NMNH Research Associateship: CV and Research,” October 5, 2006, 12:42 AM, email to Richard Sternberg; Letter from Cristian Samper K. to Richard Sternberg, November 2006.
8 Marilyn Schotte, “statements,” March 22, 2005, 9:53 AM, email to Jonathan Coddington with attached memo dated February 8, 2005.
9Sue Richardson, “Re: misc,” February 22, 2005, 9:38 AM, email to Jonathan Coddington.
10 Hans Sues, “Re: Meyer article,” August 26, 2004, 1:41 PM, email to Eugenie Scott.
11 See note 2.

Robert Crowther, II

Robert Crowther holds a BA in Journalism with an emphasis in public affairs and 20 years experience as a journalist, publisher, and brand marketing and media relations specialist. From 1994-2000 he was the Director of Public and Media Relations for Discovery Institute overseeing most aspects of communications for each of the Institute's major programs. In addition to handling public and media relations he managed the Institute's first three books to press, Justice Matters by Roberta Katz, Speaking of George Gilder edited by Frank Gregorsky, and The End of Money by Richard Rahn.