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Hundreds say #TimesUp for world’s largest scientific organization to address sexual harassment

The #TimesUp movement started in Hollywood, but it is now pouring into the lab.

Last Tuesday, scientists published an open letter calling on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest scientific community, to address sexual harassment within its ranks.

While scientific academia is no stranger to harassment cases, many controversies involving scientists have recently taken center stage. In June, the Los Angeles Times reported that Francisco J. Ayala, an acclaimed geneticist at the University of California Irvine, resigned after a university investigation ruled that the former Dominican priest had sexually harassed four faculty members and graduate students. Ayala is a former president of AAAS.

The open letter charges that there is no mechanism to prevent AAAS award recipients from retaining their honors if they are revealed to be harassers. The letter calls on AAAS to pass a new policy to address harassment and strip honors and fellowships from offenders. Currently, harassers could be reprimanded by their university, but still maintain their titles, honors or privileges from AAAS.

Every year, AAAS taps 15 renowned scientists to take part in the Leshner Fellowship, which promotes collaboration between scientists and the public. The program aims to create institutional change for topics related to science and society, like climate change or infectious diseases. While Leshner recipients are carefully selected, fellows — including Noelle Eckley Selin, an atmospheric chemist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — have noted the organization lacks the capacity to weed out harassers.

“We thought that addressing harassment is a critical part of doing the public engagement and institutional change that we were asked to accomplish as Leshner Fellows,” said Selin, who is one of the letter’s authors.

The letter references a recent study from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that highlights the pervasiveness of harassment in the science community, especially towards women. The study says 58 percent of female faculty and staff in academia have experienced sexual harassment. Women of color and sexual- and gender-minority women also undergo increased rates of harassment.

“If you asked all of the different Leshner Fellows about this, we may each have a different person in mind,” said Meghan Duffy, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist.

So far, 85 percent of the Leshner Fellows and close to 700 other people have signed the letter, but they may have to wait until an upcoming AAAS vote to see any substantial policy change.

AAAS released this statement in response to the letter:

“AAAS and others are working to ensure that there are adequate policies in place that codify that the scientific community will not tolerate sexual harassment. For example, AAAS has been working with other scientific societies and with funding agencies on relevant policies, such as NSF’s proposed reporting requirements for sexual harassment. The code of conduct and harassment policy for the AAAS Annual Meeting has been used as an example policy and process for other scientific society conferences. We are working within our organization’s bylaws and governance structure as relates to elected AAAS Fellows, including the development of a Fellows revocation policy which is currently under consideration by the AAAS Council.”

Duffy and Selin noted that the impact of harassment ripples across a laboratory. When female scientists are looking for advisors and job opportunities, it is critical to know the reputations of their superiors and the work environment. These choices could seriously impact a woman’s mental health and career. The National Academies of Sciences report points out that male-dominant gender ratios and organization leaders who fail to take claims of sexual misconduct seriously are the best predictors of sexual harassment in a work environment.

Power and grant money tend to be concentrated at the top of the food chain, which can drastically influence organizational hierarchy and leave lower-level researchers feeling at risk. Because of this, biologist Maryam Zaringhalam of 500 Women Scientists described how research institutions can sometimes prioritize harassers over victims if the abusers can win awards that make the university shine.

“Too many universities have allowed bad actors to get away with harassment, believing that their contributions to science and the funding they bring to their institutions absolve them of any accountability,” Zaringhalam said via email. “They’re treated more like ‘tortured geniuses’ than perpetrators of toxic behavior.”

According to AAAS spokesperson Tiffany Lohwater, the organization is working to make sure there are policies in place to ensure that the scientific community will not tolerate harassment. The AAAS already enforces a code of conduct for its annual meetings and launched SEA Change — an initiative that prompts universities to enact systemic changes to support minority groups in STEM — earlier this year, she said.

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