Link: How scientific societies are moving to combat sexual harassment

3 minute read

Cris Russell has a very strong piece in Scientific American covering the ways that some scientific societies are responding to combat sexual harassment and assault in scientific fields: “Confronting Sexual Harassment in Science”.

She focuses on quotes from Marcia McNutt, former editor of Science, now president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and recent statements from the American Geophysical Union.

The AGU is also part of a new collaborative research project, funded by a $1.1-million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation Foundation, that will update the teaching of research ethics by addressing sexual harassment as scientific misconduct. Led by University of Wisconsin–Madison researcher Erika Marín-Spiotta, the project will produce more effective training materials in Earth, space and environmental sciences that may serve as a model for other STEM fields. This includes development of tested bystander intervention workshops to help academic leaders respond to and prevent sexual harassment. There is limited data on the effectiveness of existing training programs and a sense that many were designed primarily to meet legal liability concerns.

I was really happy to read in Russell’s article that my own university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has a leadership role in the AGU effort to update teaching of research ethics. In my experience during the last several years, UW-Madison has been uniform in its message, from the Chancellor’s office through all levels of administration, that sexual harassment is unacceptable. The workplace training (required of all employees) on sexual harassment and assault is in my view very effective, and this year it is being supplemented by workshops to address implicit bias. In other words, I think my institution is very serious in its response to these issues.

But many of the problems in science are trans-institutional. Sexual harassment and assault often happen in settings removed from formal workplaces like universities and research institutes. Fieldwork is a special problem in anthropology and archaeology, with many practitioners adopting an attitude that “what happens in the field, stays in the field”. Professional conferences have also been locations where harassment and assault occur outside the bounds of their institutions. Professional associations can make a difference, by reinforcing professional standards of conduct among researchers outside of their own institutions.

Sexual misconduct graphic from Science story
Figure from Science magazine story on sexual misconduct in anthropology, illustrating some results of the Survey on Academic Fieldwork Experiences (2014).

The American Association of Physical Anthropologists responded strongly to this issue starting in 2015 and 2016, and I’m proud of the association for its strong stance. That response came in the wake of reported cases of sexual harassment at the professional conference of the AAPA. Another professional meeting, that of the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution, was the occasion of an alleged case of sexual assault in 2014.

Sexual harassment, assault, and other abuses during anthropological and archaeological fieldwork have driven talented people out of anthropology and archaeology for years. I have heard first-hand accounts of some of these abuses from colleagues, and I believe their personal stories. I have heard many more rumors of abuses second-hand or third-hand from many people—often with corroborating details that suggest that they are true. I have also seen directly the effects of misogyny and implicit bias by scientific referees, both as a coauthor of papers and as an academic editor.

I’m pleased that NSF is spending money to help develop better training in professional ethics and to study the effects of that training. It is important to the future of science that students and postdoctoral trainees be given the tools to defend themselves from professional misconduct of all kinds. It would be helpful for professional associations to develop ombudperson positions to help trainees find solutions when they are subjected to harassment and assault.

But I would further encourage NSF to investigate how it has awarded funds to abusers in the past.

We know from the 2014 SAFE study that harassment and assault have been very common in recent and existing field programs in archaeology and anthropology. Millions of dollars of funding have gone to researchers who maintain field projects that are widely rumored to be sites where abuses have happened for years. Researchers have used this support to intimidate and silence the targets of their abuse, and have evaded scrutiny from institutions because of the federal dollars they bring in (“Why do universities cover up high-profile harassment? Look for the money”). Meanwhile, the institutions who received 50% or more overhead on these NSF grants did not maintain minimal levels of professional standards by the site directors.

I hope that more of these stories will be made public so that the broader community of scientists can acknowledge this history and commit to stop covering up the unethical and immoral behavior by supposed leaders in the field.