In April last year, the Ecological Society of America awarded Priyanga Amarasekare one of the highest honours in the field of ecology: the Robert H. MacArthur Award. A little over two months later, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), placed Amarasekare on a one-year suspension without pay or benefits, and forbade her from accessing her laboratory, maintaining her insect colonies, managing her grants or contacting students. Now scientists from around the world, who call Amarasekare a “highly distinguished ecologist”, “a committed teacher and outstanding mentor” and a “tireless advocate for under-represented groups”, are calling for her reinstatement.
The precise allegations that led to her suspension are unknown. UCLA has declined to release them, and barred Amarasekare from discussing the matter publicly. But long-standing tensions between Amarasekare and the university are no secret. Originally from Sri Lanka and one of two women of colour who have tenure in UCLA’s ecology and evolution department, Amarasekare has previously accused the university of discrimination for repeatedly denying her promotions that were granted to colleagues. Former students and faculty members who are familiar with the situation think that Amarasekare’s suspension was retaliation for speaking out.
Some 315 scientists have raised concerns about her suspension in a petition that was delivered to the university on 23 January, arguing that Amarasekare “has long been denied significant advancement within her department, out of keeping with her contributions to the field”. Moreover, the sanctions levied against Amarasekare — including the one-year suspension and a 20% salary reduction for an additional two years — represent “the kind of punishment normally applied only to the most egregious wrongdoings”, including scientific misconduct and sexual harassment, the petitioners write.
In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, the scientists ask that UCLA rescind the disciplinary actions and fully compensate Amarasekare.
Officials at UCLA say that the university “supports freedom of expression and does not condone retaliation of any sort”. They declined to discuss the accusations against Amarasekare or the statements of those who support her, saying the university is “bound to respect the privacy of the numerous individuals involved in this matter”. Amarasekare also declined to comment.
A confusing decision
Amarasekare’s colleagues told Nature that she is the rare ecologist whose research spans theoretical, computational and experimental realms. One project in her laboratory that touches on all of these areas focuses on the impact of climate change on insect communities. “She’s really several years ahead of everybody else,” says Andy Dobson, an ecologist at Princeton University in New Jersey who helped to lead the petition. Dobson has written letters to support Amarasekare’s various applications for promotion at UCLA and says he has been baffled by the university’s decisions. “She complained, and most of what’s happened seems to be a reaction against that,” he says.
Nature spoke to several former students and faculty members who defended Amarasekare in administrative hearings in September 2021. Although no one knew the specific details of the charges against her, they all thought she was targeted for speaking out against what she saw as discrimination in the department. In particular, they said Amarasekare vented about her own experience at UCLA on a departmental e-mail listserve created to discuss issues of racism and discrimination in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, whose death in May 2020 sparked international protests.
“That’s why she got into trouble. She ended up criticizing pretty much the entire department — with good reason,” says Marcel Vaz, an ecologist at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who was a graduate student in the department at the time. He and other students came forward to support her. “We demanded some explanation,” Vaz says, “but we never got any feedback.”
Peter Kareiva, a former UCLA faculty member who spoke on Amarasekare’s behalf during the administrative proceedings, calls her a brilliant scientist as well as a terrific teacher and student mentor. Kareiva witnessed Amarasekare raise uncomfortable issues and challenge internal policies in faculty meetings. He says she might have made mistakes in terms of “facilitating harmony” among fellow faculty members, but that her goal was always to improve the department.
“I am still incredulous by the punishment levied,” says Kareiva, who now serves as president of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California.
It is unclear what happens next, but scientists contacted by Nature are concerned about the impact of the suspension on Amarasekare’s current students, the disruption of her federally funded research and the potentially irretrievable loss of time-sensitive experiments that could provide insights into the ecological impacts of climate change.
As the recipient of the MacArthur award, Amarasekare is expected to discuss this research when she delivers her keynote address at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in Portland, Oregon, in August.