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Science Careers Blog

December 13, 2010

Unnaturally Not Selected?

Should a scientist's religious views affect his ability to land an academic post?  Astronomer Martin Gaskell believes they should not, and, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Federal Judge Karl S. Forester agrees.  That is why the judge is allowing Gaskell to go forward with a jury trial in the religious discrimination suit he has brought against the University of Kentucky.  

Despite "substantial evidence that Gaskell was the leading candidate" to head the university's new observatory, the judge found, the university gave the job to someone else once the search committee learned that Gaskell had expressed doubt on the subject of evolution.  With a P.h.D from the University of California, Santa Cruz [Editor's Note: Previously we wrote UC Santa Barbara; apologies for the mistake], extensive publications in his field of super-massive black holes, and successful experience founding an innovative observatory at the University of Nebraska, Gaskell has also written and lectured on the relationship between science and Biblical religion.

The University of Kentucky acknowledges that Gaskell's religious views hurt his chances for the job.  It argues, however, that other issues about his academic record and personality were also involved and, furthermore, that it has a right to consider the totality of a candidate's views on science.

Notes from one of Gaskell's science and religion lectures indicate that he sees Genesis  as compatible with astronomical science.  He also perceives, however, "major scientific problems in evolutionary theory," although he denies that he rejects evolution overall.  On this basis a search committee member e-mailed her colleagues that Gaskell, though "fascinating," was "potentially evangelical."  And an astronomy department member expressed fear of potential embarrassment were the university to be viewed as hiring a "creationist," especially in a state that contains the anti-evolution Creation Museum.   Gaskell counters that he is not a creationist and notes that the search committee chair believed him "superbly qualified" and thought his religous views "unrelated to astronomy."

Gaskell in fact would have served the university as "the perfect foil" to narrow anti-evolutionism because he is "an openly Christian man of science who accepts evolution," argues attorney Francis Manion, one of those representing Gaskell.  Manion suggests a strategy of co-option that some observers argue would emphasize the broad compatibility that many Christian believers -- including National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins -- perceive between their personal religious faith and their acceptance of modern science.   

Beyond that, Manion's use of a turn of phrase, "an openly Christian man," usually reserved for members of the gay community, carries a potentially powerful and provocative implication about discrimination and minority status within a dominant culture.  Who defines what is acceptable and normal?  How sweeping can that definition be?  To what extent must individuals be protected from harm?

Currently a research associate at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, Gaskell states on his personal homepage that he has "accepted a professorship in Chile.., where a large fraction of the world's largest telescopes are."  He nonetheless hopes to recover financial damages from the University of Kentucky to compensate for lost income and emotional pain.

Stay tuned for a courtroom battle over what constitutes unlawful discrimination and legitimate science -- a battle that, like Gaskell himself, could prove "fascinating."

[Editor's Note: For an excellent account of a scientist with a strong religious faith, read Elisabeth Pain's Testimony of a Young Christian Scientist.]

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