US scientific societies rewrite policies to clamp down on sexual harassment

A growing movement in the US research community to stop sexual harassment in the sciences – dubbed #UsToo – featured prominently at a forum of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) annual meeting in Austin, Texas. The discussion at AAAS came a week after the US National Science Foundation (NSF) – the country’s primary funder of fundamental science and engineering research – announced new grant term and condition requirements to help address the problem.

At the AAAS conference, scientific organisations like the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the American Geophysical Union (AGU) described how they are grappling with how to effect real change in this area.

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The #MeToo campaign has inspired #UsToo, which aims to tackle sexual harassment in science

Several high profile cases of sexual harassment in recent years have rocked the science community. Although legal responsibility for addressing such issues primarily rests with employing institutions, representatives from these professional organisations said they play an important role.

Jodi Wesemann, the ACS’ assistant director for education research, said that the organisation has updated its national meeting attendee conduct policy, as well as its academic and professional employment guidelines for chemists.

‘There is much more to do,’ she told delegates. ‘We are starting to move now from the policy into what I would call the programming – maybe not quite action yet, but trying to empower people to act.’

Bold actions

The AGU is several steps ahead of the game, and one of its most controversial developments a recent expansion of the organsation’s ‘scientific misconduct’ policy beyond fabrication, falsification and plagiarism, to sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination. ‘It is fairly new… but our AGU definition of scientific misconduct now includes misconduct towards others,’ explained Billy Williams, AGU’s vice president for ethics, diversity and inclusion, at the AAAS meeting.

Discussions within AGU selection committees about fellows or candidates for AGU office have traditionally focused on scientific merit, but now professional conduct factors into those conversations. ‘That means that there are implications within AGU for our honours and awards, and our governance,’ Williams said.

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Organisations are updating their policies on how harassment should be dealt with by research institutions

However, the modified definition of scientific misconduct proved controversial at the AAAS meeting. Arthur Bienenstock – a professor emeritus of photon science at Stanford University who won a prize at the AAAS meeting in recognition of his academic leadership and promotion of diversity and inclusion in scientific fields – greatly opposed to the move. He urged the scientific societies to keep research misconduct separate from sexual harassment.

‘Even in the area of research misconduct, with those clear-cut definitions, most of us supervising at universities find that we face numerous situations in which individuals attempt to solve what should scholarly differences by accusing another person of research misconduct,’ Bienenstock stated. ‘It seems unlikely if that is happening in some of the clear-cut areas like fabrication, falsification and plagiarism, that we won’t face the same thing with respect to sexual abuse.’

A literature to protect

Bienenstock also suggested that the discovery of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in science demands a public retraction of the research paper in question, but that is not the case when an author is guilty of sexual misconduct. ‘We have a literature to protect, and it’s a very important literature, and that is why I want that distinction, not because I don’t think sexual misconduct is serious,’ he said.

There was some backlash to Bienenstock’s remarks. ‘I actually disagree with you, because one of the things that happens when someone is harassed is that they lose a lot of self-confidence,’ said Laura Greene, a physics professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who also sits on the AAAS Board of Directors.

‘I know of cases where people, because they are a minority or are not liked by someone, don’t get on the paper like they should be, aren’t referenced like they should be – that is a certain kind of misconduct,’ Greene stated. ‘Why should we include plagiarism and authorship in the same document as extreme sexual harassment? The reason is because there is no gap there – it is not even a second order phase transition, it is a crossover, and it is very messy.’

We found unclear policies and procedures that leave victims unsure of where to turn, and institutions more interested in checking the boxes of compliance rather than doing the right thing

Congresswoman Barbara Comstock

Shirley Malcom, who directs AAAS’ education and human resources programmes, agreed. ‘I can tell you of instances where people basically were not on the paper, and that you have essentially unprotected your research,’ she said.

Meanwhile, the NSF’s new policy, released on 8 February, doubles down on a statement the agency issued about two years ago that it will not tolerate sexual harassment at institutions it supports. It has also introduced a new award term and condition that will require grantee organisations to report findings of sexual harassment by a principal investigator (PI) and report the placement of a PI or other grantee on administrative leave relating to a harassment investigation.

At a hearing of the House of Representatives’ science, space, and technology committee on 27 February, Rhonda Davis, who heads NSF’s diversity and inclusion office this new policy has been ‘fast-tracked’ and will come into effect within the next few months.

Unilateral action

The congressional committee has been investigating how federal science agencies and universities handle harassment complaints since October, and the results paint a dismal picture, according to congresswoman Barbara Comstock, who chairs the committee’s research and technology subcommittee that convened the hearing.

‘So far, the committee has found inconsistency in how different agencies deal with complaints and investigations, unclear policies and procedures that leave victims unsure of where to turn, and institutions more interested in checking the boxes of compliance rather than doing the right thing,’ Comstock stated. She noted that a recent National Postdoctoral Association survey found that nearly 30% of post-doctorate candidates in the US had experienced sexual harassment.

Beyond the congressional investigation, a US National Academies panel is also examining sexual harassment in academia. The report, slated for release in June 2018, will examine the data on sexual harassment of women in science, engineering, and medicine fields, and will explore various policy options to prevent and address the problem.