Europe’s leading particle-physics laboratory, CERN, has suspended an Italian theoretical physicist after he allegedly denied that physics suffers from a male gender bias and criticized affirmative-action policies during a presentation at the lab.

The University of Pisa in Italy and the European Research Council (ERC), which funds the physicist’s research, also say they are opening investigations.

Alessandro Strumia of the University of Pisa gave the presentation on 28 September at the lab’s first Workshop on High Energy Theory and Gender, in front of an audience reportedly largely made up of women. Reports about what he said quickly surfaced on social media — and included fierce criticism and accusations of sexism.

CERN, which lies near Geneva, Switzerland, announced its decision on 1 October, saying that Strumia was barred “from any activity at CERN with immediate effect, pending investigation into last week’s event”. Strumia disputes the characterization of his presentation as sexist.

In its statement, CERN said that Strumia’s remarks were antithetical to its code of conduct and to its values. “CERN is a culturally diverse organisation bringing together people of many different nationalities. It is a place where everyone is welcome, and all have the same opportunities, regardless of ethnicity, beliefs, gender or sexual orientation.”

The statement from the University of Pisa’s rector, Paolo Mancarella, acknowledged accusations that Strumia’s slides violated “fundamental values” of the university’s community. Mancarella said that he has deemed those accusations “well founded” and has opened an ethics investigation.

The investigation will be handled by the university’s ethical committee.

Potential gender bias

In a statement on the affair released on 1 October, the ERC’s president, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, referred to claims made by an ERC grantee, whom he does not mention by name. The ERC press office confirmed to Nature that Bourguignon was referring to Strumia.

“I would like to stress that the ERC strongly supports the principle of equal opportunities between women and men, and is committed to improving gender balance and tackling potential gender bias in all its operations,” wrote Bourguignon. He said that he would be contacting CERN to “seek further details” about the grantee’s talk.

Strumia, who does research at CERN as an ‘invited scientist’, told Naturethat commenting on CERN’s decision might contravene the organization’s rules while the investigation is pending. But he added: “I hope they will want to talk and tell me what it was about my talk that was illegal.”

In response to the social-media criticism, Strumia said: “I trust that the honest majority will understand that it is the truth, and that it was worthwhile to suffer such lynching for not submitting to censorship.”

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on October 1, 2018.