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Two former researchers at the troubled Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico have filed a lawsuit claiming that illegal discrimination and retaliation led to their dismissal.
James Richardson and Elizabeth Sternke are suing the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), which oversees radio astronomy and planetary science at Arecibo, and the observatory’s deputy director, Joan Schmelz — a prominent advocate for women in astronomy.
Richardson and Sternke, a married couple in their mid-50s, allege that Schmelz discriminated against them because of their age and because Richardson is legally blind. Soon after Sternke revealed in November 2015 that she planned to file a complaint with the US Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which investigates workplace bias, USRA announced that her contract job with Arecibo’s education programme would end early. Richardson filed his own EEOC complaint, and in April 2016, USRA terminated his employment as a staff scientist.
The EEOC ultimately found evidence of discrimination and that Sternke and Richardson were terminated in retaliation for their complaints, according to documents provided by the researchers’ lawyer. In their lawsuit, filed on 4 October in the US District Court in Puerto Rico, Richardson and Sternke are seeking more than US$20 million in back pay and damages.
Schmelz says that she cannot comment on the lawsuit, and declined to answer Nature‘s questions. But USRA, her co-defendant and employer, “firmly denies these allegations and plans to vigorously defend this matter”, it said in a statement to Nature.
The legal challenge comes as the 53-year-old observatory battles to survive. Its single-dish radio telescope, one of the world’s biggest, is still in high demand. But the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which provides roughly two-thirds of the observatory’s $12 million funding, is facing a budget crunch. The agency is …