Students walk by Royce Hall on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2021.

The University of California, Los Angeles, suspended ecologist Priyanga Amarasekare without salary or benefits for one year, and will cut her salary by 20% for two more years.Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty

In April of 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 forbid 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. A native of Sri Lanka and one of two women of colour who have tenure in the ecology and evolution department, she 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 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 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 violations, 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 with UCLA say that the university “supports freedom of expression and does not condone retaliation of any sort”. They declined to discuss the accusations against or in support of Amarasekare, 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

Colleagues told Nature that Amarasekare is the rare ecologist whose research spans the 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 led 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 none knew the specific details of the charges against her, they all thought she had been targeted for speaking out against what she saw as discrimination within 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 national 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 and former students and faculty members contacted by Nature are concerned about the impact on Amarasekare’s current students, the disruption of federally funded research and the potentially irretrievable loss of time-sensitive experiments that could provide insights regarding 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.

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