Last fall, as the horrific allegations of sexual misconduct and assault against entertainment titan Harvey Weinstein started to emerge, details of another alleged case came to light, not from a Hollywood casting couch but from remote scientific research stations in Antarctica. Two former graduate students of prominent Boston University geologist David Marchant lodged formal complaints against their onetime mentor, saying that he had sexually harassed them during research expeditions nearly 20 years ago. One complainant alleged that Marchant called her a “slut” and a “whore,” threw rocks at her when she went to the bathroom in the field and goaded her to have sex with his brother, who was also on the expedition. After a 13-month investigation, the university concluded that Marchant had indeed engaged in sexual harassment. Marchant has appealed the finding.
The case is one in a string of allegations leveled against high-profile scientists in recent years that add to a growing body of evidence that science, like Hollywood, is rotten with sexual misconduct. In a survey published in 2014, 71 percent of female respondents said they had been sexually harassed during field research, and 26 percent said they had been sexually assaulted. In a follow-up study, survey participants described psychological trauma from the encounters that compromised their ability to continue their research. Some abandoned their careers altogether.
Science, like all human endeavors, benefits from diversity. Yet women hold just 24 percent of jobs in science, technology, engineering and medicine. If factors such as sexual misconduct are driving women out of science, then the scientific community must act. To that end, last September the nearly 60,000-member American Geophysical Union (AGU) took the bold step of revising its ethics policy to treat harassment (including sexual harassment), discrimination and bullying as scientific misconduct, with the same types of penalties for offenders. Other scientific organizations have not adopted that standard, and we think they should.
Allegations of sexual misconduct have long played out in parallel justice systems because criminal justice in practice is so ineffective. In academia, victims of sexual harassment and assault typically funnel their complaints through Title IX, a law that forbids sex-based discrimination, including sexual harassment and sexual violence, in colleges and universities that receive federal funding.
But some critics complain that the Title IX system is deeply flawed, allowing institutions with a vested interest in protecting their reputations to play the roles of detective, judge and jury. In October 2017 Scientific American reported that many sexual misconduct victims feel let down by inaction by their institutions.
A number of scientific societies have recently issued statements condemning sexual harassment and assault, along with guidelines for ethical behavior among their members. The AGU's approach is stronger and more direct. It argues that harassment is as egregious as the big scientific sins of data fabrication, falsification and plagiarism. Members found guilty of sexual harassment may thus be banned from presenting at conferences or publishing their research in AGU-run scientific journals, among other consequences that would limit their participation in the field.
Some argue that research should stand on its own merit, regardless of the personal behavior of the scientists themselves. But “science is not being done outside of interpersonal interactions,” says anthropologist Robin Nelson of Santa Clara University, a co-author on the two recent studies that looked at harassment in the field. Behavior that silences other voices subverts the entire scientific enterprise. If that's not misconduct, we don't know what is.
The AGU's policy will not solve the problem alone. Scientific societies have limited means and authority to investigate and adjudicate and thus rely mainly on the home institutions of perpetrators to handle allegations of sexual misconduct. Nicholas Steneck, a research integrity consultant and emeritus professor at the University of Michigan, notes that a change in the federal definition of research misconduct to include sexual misconduct, though unlikely, would have a far greater impact because it would have legal standing with agencies and research institutions.
But classifying harassment as scientific misconduct sends a powerful message about its destructive effects on victims and on scientific progress as a whole—and will help pave the way to creating a culture where discovery and innovation can flourish.