A report titled “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine” has been released by the National Academy of Sciences. Many of us have awaited this report with lumps in our throats and knots in our stomachs, because we are more than familiar with the cost of harassments and assault in our workplaces. We pay that cost, and so do our colleagues, students, and the entire scientific community, every day.
While often spoken through whisper networks and behind closed doors, here are some of our scientific stories:
- The brilliant graduate student who dropped out after being repeatedly groped by her advisor.
- The researcher who stopped doing crucial fieldwork because of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in the field.
- The professor who only invites male students out for beers where they discuss new ideas and projects, while the female students are left to struggle on their own.
- The undergraduate who was raped while doing fieldwork.
- The junior scientists who are wary to visit a prestigious research group after a prominent member was caught placing hidden cameras in the bathroom.
- The academics who reluctantly skip certain conferences, knowing that the organizers turn a blind eye to sexual harassment by big names in the field.
- The scientist who avoids what might otherwise be a fruitful collaboration with another lab because the principal investigator is known for making racist comments.
These are a few examples of the stories many of us in science have heard from our colleagues or have experienced ourselves. Taken individually, these experiences range from mildly infuriating to outright criminal. Together, they create a depressing ecosystem where the scientific contributions of women and men of color, white women, and other marginalized groups are consistently stifled in ways both large and small. As a consequence, some voices are rewarded while others are punished for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their research and everything to do with bullying, harassment, and other discriminatory behavior. Science is anything but a meritocracy.
Despite the popular myth of the lone-wolf genius scientist, science is an inherently social, collaborative endeavor. Intensive scientific training involves close collaboration with a senior advisor. Most scientists can trace their “academic genealogy” through generations linked by formative relationships. Scientific papers typically include many authors who work together to form something greater than the sum of its parts. Conferences and workshops where scientists mingle are petri dishes of new ideas and partnerships—they are nurseries and laboratories for future scientific communities. Scientific progress depends directly on the ability of scientists to discuss, argue, collaborate, and build upon on the knowledge of others.
This close-knit nature of scientific relationships has a dark side. As the #MeToo movement has reverberated through science, many researchers speaking up about the harassment and abuse they have faced throughout their careers. In a field where relationships with other scientists make or break careers, everything from subtle biases to outright malice can have enormous cumulative impacts on science and scientific progress.
The pervasiveness of harassment, abuse, and bias has a real cost for both individual scientists and for the overall advancement of science. Tolerating bad behavior means wasted tax dollars, disrupted scientific advancements, and weakened innovation. And those who perpetuate this culture of harassment and bias are not just jerks whose bad behavior can be separated from their otherwise good scholarship, but a real and serious impediment to scientific progress as a whole.
Though James Watson certainly contributed to our knowledge of DNA, how many actual or potential scientists and scientific projects did he obstruct through his well-documented racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism? Geoff Marcy might have done some interesting work on exoplanets, but how many potentially brilliant minds were silenced as a direct result of his pervasive abuse? How many more young scientists will Christian Ott be allowed to bully and harass before we acknowledge the direct cost to science?
Scientists bear a responsibility to others in their field. Not only because of basic human decency, but because of the necessity for safe, collegial relations to undergird our best and most innovative research. Those who fail in this task should at best be considered mediocre scientists, and at worst actively counteractive and hostile towards the institution of science. The derailed careers, lost researchers, and crippled scientific projects are the cost we pay for tolerating these bad actors. We must find ways to hold them accountable for the damage that they do to science.
Members of the scientific community and their allies are coming up with innovative ways of doing just that. Neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin began a petition asking that anyone found guilty of a Title IX violation be removed from the National Academy of Sciences as a way of acknowledging their damage to science. Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel has proposed incorporating a code of conduct into scientific publishing, such that journals can refuse to publish work from researchers who violate ethical standards. In Congress, Congresswoman Jackie Speier introduced a bill that requires universities to inform federal grantmaking agencies about substantiated findings of sexual abuse and harassment, and gives the agencies the explicit authority to consider this information when making future funding decisions. She plans to reintroduce the bill later this year.
While none of these are perfect or complete solutions, they represent important steps towards making science a healthier, more productive, and ultimately stronger field. The scientific community is well-versed at weeding out outdated hypotheses, incorrect analyses, and erroneous conclusions in the name of scientific progress. It’s time we do the same to bad scientists and their bad behavior.