|Australian Centre for Ancient DNA|
This week, after ignoring years of formal and informal complaints against one of its most high-profile scientists, the University of Adelaide launched an inquiry into allegations of bullying, harassment, and other misconduct concerning ancient DNA expert Alan Cooper. The university, in an email announcing the inquiry sent to members and associates of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), is calling the investigation a "culture check." This seems an obvious euphemism, although the terminology may serve the purpose of allowing the university to avoid suspending Cooper as director of ACAD while the inquiry is going on.
That would be a big mistake, because numerous sources are describing to me the efforts that Cooper and the center's coordinator, Maria Lekis, are currently making to discourage students and postdocs in the center from cooperating with the inquiry. These efforts reportedly range from individual discussions to the calling of an "emergency" lab meeting by some of Cooper's loyalists at ACAD designed to dissuade members of the lab from talking to the investigators and also to me, the reporter on this story.
To show the lengths to which those involved in this attempted coverup and obstruction of justice are apparently willing to go, just in the past few days the lengthy list of "PhD Graduates from ACAD" was removed from the "People at ACAD" page, where it used to reside (the tab was just to the right of the "Affiliates" tab.) Fortunately I had earlier printed out this page, as any reporter would think to do, and I am happy to make it available to the investigators (or anyone else) upon request. Update July 6: After being absent for about three days, the tab for PhD Graduates has now been restored.
The allegations against Cooper include severe bullying, harassment, falsifying grant applications and other documents, sexual harassment, unethical handling of samples for ancient DNA analyses, and disrespect of Aboriginal Australian peoples and the remains of their ancestors. This preliminary report will focus on the first three issues; the other topics will be discussed in a followup report when it is ready. I do want to say something here about the sexual harassment allegations, however. Although the victims and other witnesses do not want to provide the specifics at this time, I was able to confirm that Cooper engaged in behavior that would normally be referred to as sexual harassment when he was at Oxford University earlier and also while at Adelaide--including a very recent episode that was at least a partial factor in the university's decision to launch this inquiry. I should have more to say about this soon.
Since Cooper's misconduct can be traced back to his time at the ancient DNA lab at Oxford University, the report below includes a detailed account of why he was forced to resign from Oxford. As I write, former members of Cooper's Oxford lab are actively discussing how they might help the Adelaide inquiry, and I will probably be able to say more about that soon.
I want to stress that my investigation began when senior researchers in Australia, frustrated that nothing had been done over many years about Cooper's conduct, approached me and asked me to look into it. Nearly all of my recent journalistic inquiries into misconduct have begun in a similar manner. But this investigation would not have been possible if not for the many researchers who either agreed to talk to me or reached out on their own. Although nearly everyone is anonymous at this stage, to speak to a reporter at all is an act of courage when the threat of retaliation is still very real even after many years.
Given the gravity of the accusations, and the clear evidence of an attempt to interfere with the inquiry and obstruct justice, I think it is imperative that the University of Adelaide remove Cooper from stepping foot into ACAD or having contact with any current or former members until the investigation is completed. This is normal procedure in any serious inquiry.
What follows is based on direct communications with nearly 30 sources who have direct knowledge of the history and events at Oxford and Adelaide. To protect their identities, in most cases the specifics of their experiences have been left vague or left out entirely, although they have described those details to me and they are recorded in my already very voluminous notes. Nearly all of these researchers, however, have been willing to discuss--and have expressed here--how Cooper's conduct affected their careers and their lives. In the second section I will refer to them using letters of the alphabet.
What happened at Oxford.
Alan Cooper was born and raised in New Zealand, and received his PhD from the Victoria University of Wellington in 1994. His doctoral advisors were the late Allan Wilson of the University of California, Berkeley, a pioneer in the use of molecular methods to study evolution; and Svante Paabo, now at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, one of the early pioneers of ancient DNA studies. Cooper soon gained a reputation himself as a talented and innovative ancient DNA researcher. Among his early achievements was characterizing the first complete mitochondrial genome sequences from an extinct species, the New Zealand moa.
These early successes propelled Cooper to Oxford University, where he was director of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre from 2001-2005, when he was forced to resign in the wake of a grant application falsification scandal.
With the help of a large number of former members of Cooper's Oxford lab, I was able to reconstruct the circumstances of his departure, which up to now has been only murkily understood. Indeed, the university only put out a cursory statement upon Cooper's resignation, which was reported in Nature and The Scientist: "Allegations relate solely to material included in grant applications and not to published research results or the conduct of ongoing research," Oxford said.
In fact, a number of sources say, by the time the university caught Cooper putting false data into a grant application, many at Oxford were already keen to get rid of him. The reason was that starting early in his directorship of the Wellcome center, Cooper gained a reputation for bullying, harassment, and negligence of his PhD students and postdocs, as well as discourteous behavior towards senior colleagues and university officials.
One former lab member, who like several others called Cooper "a major asshole," says that he regularly bullied his younger colleagues, often insisting that they engage in what they considered to be unethical behavior. In some cases, they say, Cooper would ask his postdocs to review grant applications that he had submitted to funding agencies; in others, Cooper would ask them to exaggerate their own data to increase the chances of a grant being awarded. One former PhD student describes how Cooper instructed him to exaggerate how many base pairs of DNA had been amplified from a particular sample, "so the phylogenetic tree would appear more robust." Another former student says that Cooper trained people in the lab to forge the signature of the then department head, the evolutionary biologist Paul Harvey, who later would be instrumental in getting rid of Cooper.
(Former Oxford colleagues stress, however, that they never witnessed Cooper falsifying data that went into a peer-reviewed journal paper, and many regarded him as a brilliant scientist despite the sometimes near impossibility of working with him. Some also pointed out that Cooper justified forging Harvey's signature because of the latter's frequent absences from the department.)
The constant bullying, former lab members say, also took the form of belittling younger colleagues, behavior that would continue even more intensely when he went to Adelaide (see below.) As one former PhD student put it, "I regularly saw the extremely negative impacts that he had on others, particularly the female students in our group. I subsequently heard of many negative experiences from members of ACAD in Adelaide." Nor was Cooper's bad behavior restricted to those working under him. "He was one of the key ancient DNA people," another colleague says, "but everybody had a really hard time there. He mistreated his own people, and he had fallouts with the department. He got very unpopular with people above him and below him."
One of the most damaging things Cooper did, a number of former PhD students told me, was delay for months reading their theses, sometimes endangering postdoctoral positions that they had already obtained pending receiving their doctorates. This consistent pattern of behavior caused huge amounts of stress among his students.
The beginning of the end for Cooper came when he was helping a graduate student prepare a grant to fund her ancient DNA research. "Alan was good at getting money for his students," says one former colleague. In this particular case (I am not naming this student to protect her privacy) the student had used the polymerase chain reaction and gel electrophoresis to detect that ancient DNA was apparently present in a sample; but when she went to replicate the findings the band for the DNA did not show up. Repeated efforts were also unsuccessful. So, according to multiple sources from the Oxford lab, Cooper instructed the student to photoshop a gel image and insert that into the grant application. His reasoning, former colleagues say, is that the band was likely to show up again eventually, so it was okay to fake it for the grant.
Meanwhile, the university had become aware that Cooper was negotiating with the University of Adelaide to start up an ancient DNA center there. At first Cooper had hopes to work both at Oxford and Adelaide, but the university had other ideas. And before long, word of the fake gel reached Paul Harvey and other administrators. An investigation, initiated by evolutionary virologist Edward Holmes--now at the University of Sydney--was launched. (Holmes also helped collect some of the evidence used in the inquiry.) Lab members recall how investigators swept in dramatically, confiscated all of the computers and lab notebooks, and barred everyone from the lab for three weeks. The materials used to make the fake gel were found in a folder the graduate student had kept. Cooper never returned to the lab, and the graduate student soon had to leave Oxford. She ended up quitting scientific research entirely, a casualty of the misconduct scandal.
Holmes declined to comment on the affair, but Paul Harvey provided the following statement: "Alan forged data (and my signature has Head of Department) in a grant application and lied. His group came to me with a catalogue of irrefutable evidence. I forwarded it all to the University and they took over the investigation. Alan left for Adelaide under a cloud."
On to Adelaide.
Alan Cooper's new ancient DNA center at Adelaide, ACAD, was established in 2005, the same year he left Oxford, and he has been its director ever since. Although details of his forced resignation from Oxford for grant application fraud were murky at the time, the events were covered in the scientific press, and Adelaide was well aware of them, sources tell me. Nevertheless the university, eager to have its own center of excellence in this hot scientific field, chose to overlook Cooper's record of misconduct.
Former members of ACAD say that the university's acquiescence made it possible for Cooper to carry on his bullying and harassment of junior colleagues from the very beginning of his tenure there, and by all accounts he did. What follows covers the period from 2005 to the present; but to protect the identities of colleagues not yet ready to go public--for fear of retaliation even many years afterwards--I am being very circumspect about the time period these scientists were at ACAD, whether they were PhD students or postdocs, and other details about their experiences. Nevertheless there is a remarkable consistency in what one after another described to me, constituting a very clear pattern. Where appropriate I will identify individuals with a letter of the alphabet, to underscore that these witnesses are real people who are still living with the traumas and career consequences of their experiences. Readers should note that the comments below are echoed in those of other researchers who said very similar things.
A number of these scientists tried to do something about the situation when they were there, in some cases making formal complaints to the University of Adelaide. But they were invariably rebuffed or ignored, researchers say, which led both Cooper and his junior colleagues to think he was invincible. The assumption was that Adelaide was too enamored of Cooper's scientific successes and the considerable grant money he brought in, especially from the Australian Research Council, to do anything. As many were told, in essence, you are just passing through, Cooper is here to stay.
The following should be considered a representative sampling of what a much larger number of researchers told me. I have picked out examples that I thought were particularly illustrative, while trying to avoid too much duplication.
Many lab members mentioned to me the dreaded Friday afternoon lab meetings, during which Cooper could be counted on to pick an unfortunate victim and loudly berate them for their "failings."
A: "I suffered from stifling anxiety the whole time. Sitting in lab meetings wondering if it's my turn to 'get it' this week. Each week he would pick someone out, and rant and rave about how useless you were in front of the whole group and make an example of you. His lab meetings were from 3 pm to 5 pm every Friday. Friday's were dreaded because none of us knew whose turn it was to be grilled and shouted at. Thank God I never have to see him again."
B: "I couldn't out of there fast enough because of the behaviour of AC, which was a great shame--the research work was absolutely brilliant. AC is also one of the smartest, most imaginative scientists I've ever encountered; but unfortunately also very much the nastiest. His bullying could be quite methodical. We'd all heard him yelling and screaming at some poor victim in his office. I got called in one day." This former lab member goes on to describe how the "victim" would sit with Cooper's office door behind him, and that Cooper would "talk and stalk" behind the junior colleague, then close the door, and "the yelling and swearing and intimidation would start."
C: "From day one I was subjected to bullying and harassment, from snide remarks to full on bullying that lasted seven years. I was constantly told my writing was awful. I was told not to speak to anyone at conferences as I would say something stupid. Alan insisted that we tell him any ideas for research, that he would then pass off as his own to other scientists... numerous PhD and postdocs left during my time there, and students were frequently in tears at his treatment of people." Update: This source has now agreed to go on the record. It is Nic Rawlence, director of the paleogenetics laboratory at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
D: "He is somebody who is a bit of a psychopath. If things don't go in his direction you certainly know about it. A lot of manipulation, making sure people are doing what he wants them to do for his benefit. And if not, there's a screaming match, swearing, and yelling and getting into people's faces... In lab meetings he will go after people." This researcher went on to say that Cooper could be charming and charismatic: "If you haven't spent more than two days with him you will have a different viewpoint. As a scientist he's absolutely fantastic and as a human he's horrible." This colleague also described a big "intervention meeting" staged by Cooper's postdocs on at least one occasion. "We tried to get him to change his ways, he agreed for a week, and then went back to his old ways."
(This colleague raises an important point about Cooper's charm and charisma. A few people who have not worked in Cooper's lab, and over whom he has no power, wrote to tell me about their positive experiences with him. I do not doubt the authenticity of those experiences, but they do not negate what happens when Cooper does exercise power over students and postdocs.)
E: "I have witnessed at close quarters the devastating and lasting impact he has had on friends and colleagues over a period of years. Maybe there were gendered aspects to this that I am not aware of, but my experience of Alan is that he is an equal-opportunity bully who mistreats men and women alike."
F: A former lab member, in response to the revelations now emerging publicly about Cooper's behavior: "This whole thing is bringing up lots of difficult emotions and memories that I've been trying to bury and move on from for years." This colleague echoes the feelings of many others who described to me the long lasting effects of their experiences. I am not a clinician, but some have told me they think they might still be suffering from PTSD.
G: July 6: This former ACAD student got in touch after this blog post first appeared with a lengthy account of his experiences. I am quoting some of the key points here.
"I'm close friends with at least two people who've contacted you and I can verify their stories... I'm one of Alan's 'failed' PhD students. There are apparently many others like me...most of these people--many of [whom] were probably solid scientists in the make--have had their careers totally derailed by the experience." This former student goes on to describe Cooper's lack of supervision and aid with his PhD work, which made it very difficult for him to even begin his research. He says that when he finally was able to find a postdoc to help him, "Alan angrily told the researcher (while I was present) that he (the researcher) 'had better things to do that supervise grad students'..." Cooper, this colleague says, finally pressured him to downgrade his graduate studies to a masters degree, which he reluctantly agreed to do after getting no help in the matter from the University of Adelaide administration.
G went on to publish this work in PNAS, win an award for his research, and find another PhD supervisor and program at another university. "The abuse and bullying and obstructiveness by Alan is one thing (I personally became Alan's public humiliation target more than once.) I can't say going home after a bad meeting with Alan and draining a full bottle of wine alone represents a healthy student-mentor relationship." G acknowledges that there were some positive sides to his experience, and that he learned a lot despite the constant abuse. "Alan and ACAD foster and produce brilliant research," he says. "It was at times a thrilling place to be." But in the end, G puts the onus for the abuse on the institutional context. "These 'centres of excellence' now function like miniature corporations rather than centres for fostering students...staff and students are accepted into ACAD more or less indiscriminately, only to find themselves incorporated into a toxic, survival of the fittest environment where backstabbing is rife...the university seems completely aware of this sort of thing going on but does nothing to stop it."
H: July 10. A former student at ACAD gets in touch.
Alan Cooper "never bullied or harassed me in any way. But I was present on some occasions during the group meetings when he verbally humiliated other PhD students in front of everybody, and the sad part is that nobody did or said anything to stop it. Not even the postdocs, they just told the students it was okay to live with that." H goes on to say that Cooper is not the only one responsible for ACAD's "harmful environment," because there are around 30 lab members including students, postdocs and lab technicians. H says that some of the postdocs mimic Cooper's behavior, in the way that some junior colleagues become bullies themselves to try to avoid being bullied by the alpha male. "There is a big rivalry among the postdocs to gain [Cooper's] favor, and they have dirty ways to get it."
H adds that most of the postdocs who engage in bullying behavior are male, "and there is a strong misogynous environment. One comment I remember during a meeting was 'All females have been stupid since the Pleistocene.' And there were two occasions when I listened to a postdoc yelling at their [female] PhD student: 'You don't have what is needed to get a PhD!'" as the student broke down in tears.
(Another former member of ACAD confirms this analysis of the bullying culture. "Lab people bully each other in order to curry favour with Alan. Students do it to each other, eg, trying to take each other down in lab meetings." The result, I was told by many, is a tense and toxic atmosphere that is very difficult to escape from.)
H also raises questions about ethics concerning DNA samples in the lab. All students are asked to provide DNA samples, a common procedure in ancient DNA labs that serves as a check of human DNA contamination. But H says that the students' DNA was sometimes used in research work by other scientists in the lab, and that they felt pressured to give consent to this for fear of being ejected from the lab if they did not. I spoke with other former ACAD members about this, and it appears that this issue had come up in the past and was a source of unease, especially among students.
This is just a sampling of the kinds of experiences and after effects that many lab members have described to me. To some, but I hope not many, they may seem to be the price for working with a "brilliant" scientist in a high powered, competitive lab, in a hot, competitive field like ancient DNA. Indeed, one commenter on one of my earlier blog posts referred to those complaining as "snowflakes" who couldn't take the pressure, and compared Cooper to a football manager or CEO who drives his team hard. But I think we need to think seriously about whether this is what science, or any human endeavor, should really be, and how to protect people who are just trying to make a better and more rewarding life for themselves from clear abusers like Alan Cooper.
One former ACAD scientist summed things up in a particularly insightful way, and I will quote them in full:
"One of the points that has really struck me in thinking about this is how much people want to see evidence of harassment by hearing about extreme events, but this is actually a critical misunderstanding of how harassment takes its psychological toll! In reality, the most damage is done because of the victim being exposed to these patterns of behaviour over a long time with minimal power to do otherwise. It's the powerlessness and the repetition and the unpredictability and the gradual wearing down of your self-worth and nerves over time that contributes most to the effect. Extreme events are often just a distraction from this fact ... people can dismiss them because we can all cope with such events if they happen rarely or by people one doesn't have to defer to every day for years. But it's prolonged, normalised exposure to this behaviour that really fucks people up."
My hope is that the inquiry by the University of Adelaide will be serious and successful; that Cooper will be removed from ACAD long enough to give lab members the breathing space they need to relate their experiences to the investigators; and that there will be real consequences for this kind of abusive behavior. I will report again soon as my own investigation proceeds.
More accusations of grant application fraud (updated):
In the run up to the preparation of this report, I mentioned on social media that around 2011 Alan Cooper had stated to a number of people in his office that he had falsified some material in a successful 2011 Australian Research Council Future Fellow grant for his deputy at ACAD, Jeremy Austin. Some colleagues took immediate exception to this, arguing that Jeremy Austin was a good guy whose integrity should not be questioned. Austin himself responded with a nine-part Twitter thread denying that he had participated in any such falsification, and stating (as others did) that my only evidence was a quote from Cooper to the effect "I can't believe we got away with it."
In fact, that was not the only evidence. Cooper told colleagues in detail how he had falsified the grant, by giving Austin credit for some activities that Cooper, and not Austin, had carried out.) However, I never said that Austin was a knowing part of this supposed falsification; I asked the question whether he knew about it and whether he acknowledged that Cooper had made this statement in front of multiple witnesses. I suggested that Cooper may have been bullshitting or exaggerating and did not really do this, although the details he provided the group raised the distinct possibility that he did. If so, it would fit a pattern of behavior begun at Oxford.
One important detail that I can now add to this story (update 9 July): According to a witness who was present, ACAD's administrative coordinator, Maria Lekis, was also present during this event. This witness recalls that when Cooper described how he had falsified Austin's grant application, Lekis put her hands over her ears and said, "Alan, I don't want to hear this!"
Update July 7: This email today to Larraine Sandford in the University of Adelaide's Workplace Relations office, who has been given as the main point of contact for the university's inquiry into the allegations detailed above, should be self explanatory. It's unfortunate that it was necessary, but these concerns have been expressed to me by a number of colleagues. SAE Consulting is the outside contractor the university has retained to conduct this so-called "culture check."
Dear Larraine Sandford,
Further update: Some former members of ACAD, and I, have now obtained the contact details for the outside consulting firm that is conducting the inquiry (or "culture check" as the university likes to call it.) Please contact me by DM, PM, or via the email on my Web site, michaelbalter.com, to get those details. Offer restricted to current and past members of ACAD, or others who have first hand information to share about the above matters.
Update July 12: Australia's national broadcaster, the ABC, has now covered the story of the "culture check" at ACAD. It includes lengthy quotes from former lab member Nic Rawlence, who has been bravely outspoken on social media over the past week. Strangely, the ABC story does not mention Alan Cooper at all, even though his tyrannical leadership of the lab is the main factor in the toxic culture there. I'm not sure if this is due fear of a defamation suit--Australian laws are quite draconian in this regard--or if the ABC needs to have comment from him before it can name him. In other developments, it appears that many members of ACAD are talking to the inquiry's outside consultant about their experiences, and they are telling me that they are telling it like it is. It's hard to imagine that the University of Adelaide will be able to ignore this outpouring of testimony. I will have more from inside the lab soon.
More: The Adelaide Advertiser has now posted a story that names Cooper and also refers to the original reporting on this blog. Good job by reporter Tory Shepherd on a story that is tough to do given Australia's draconian defamation laws.
Update July 15: Recent conversations with present and past members of the University of Adelaide community have revealed some new insights, for this reporter anyway, about things that are well known in Australia. It turns out that Peter Rathjen, an internationally known stem cell scientist and current Vice-Chancellor and President of the university, has a long and widespread reputation for sexual harassment going back to his earlier days as a professor at the university. Sources are approaching me with details about this and I expect to be able to say more soon. Unfortunately, Rathjen is likely to be the final decider about the fate of Alan Cooper once the current inquiry concludes, and/or if further disciplinary proceedings take place. And other university officials below Rathjen but above Alan Cooper in the hierarchy are well known for supporting Cooper and ignoring the numerous complaints that have been lodged over the years about his behavior.
There's a lot at stake here for the University of Adelaide, sources tell me. Adelaide is a member of the so-called Group of Eight Australian universities, akin to the "Ivy League" schools in the USA (although perhaps in some cases more deserving of this elite status.) Adelaide, a relatively small university, is considered by many the weakest link: A loss in funding or prestige could bump it off the roster. While the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA is not absolutely essential for Adelaide to maintain its position, sources say, it is the only major ancient DNA center in that part of the world (as explained above, that is why it hired Alan Cooper despite his having been found guilty of misconduct by Oxford in 2005.) That also probably explains why university officials have for years either ignored or actively discouraged complaints against Cooper, a number of researchers told me. Indeed, several young scientists at ACAD told me that the center's staff specifically told them that Cooper was "untouchable" because of the money and prestige he brought to Adelaide.
Update August 19, 2019:
Cooper has now been suspended by the university pending further proceedings. Below is the official statement from the uni press office. The acting director referred to will be Jeremy Austin, currently the deputy director of ACAD, according to a letter to ACAD members from Executive Dean Keith Jones. In his letter, Jones adds: "I recognise that this situation may be unsettling for you. I encourage you to speak to your supervisor about any operational requirements you may have," and encourages those who wish it to take advantage of counseling support offered free by the university. Jones also provides a contact for anyone "who feels they have relevant information they wish to provide..."
2016 SA Scientist Of The Year Professor Alan Cooper suspended from Adelaide University
And today from Nature and from Science. And now from (Australia's) ABC.