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Harassment casts shadow over scientific integrity

Geophysicists society extends its definition of scientific misconduct to include cases of sexual harassment in the academic environment

LUANA GEIGERThe American Geophysical Union (AGU), based in Washington, D.C., USA, last month updated its code of ethics, adding sexual harassment as a form of scientific misconduct. In a statement released on September 15, the AGU noted that sexual harassment and assault has a destructive effect not only on victims, but on the entire research environment, possibly even putting women off scientific careers. “Sexual harassment is an unacceptable, yet persistent issue facing the scientific community,” said Eric Davidson, a professor at the University of Maryland and president of the AGU. “We need to work together to create a safe, supportive environment and culture that encourages young scientific talent rather than deterring it.” The new policy applies to the 62,000 members of the society and to any individual who participates in its activities. As well as sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination were also added to the list of unethical behaviors.

According to AGU guidelines, any person can file a harassment complaint. Any allegations that cannot be resolved by the society itself are referred to an investigative committee. If the case involves federally funded research, the AGU will notify the institution to which the accused is linked, and determine who is responsible for the investigation. The maximum punishment for any member found guilty is expulsion from the society.

The adoption of this new policy was discussed over the course of a year and rekindled an old debate on what constitutes scientific misconduct. Since the 1990s, the definition of misconduct has been restricted to behavior that has an unequivocal impact on research, such as fraud, fabrication of data, and plagiarism. But there have always been questions about how to address ethical issues not directly related to scientific activities. For a number of years, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the main research support agency in the United States, included a fourth category of misconduct in its ethical guidelines, described vaguely as “other serious deviations from accepted practices.” In 2000, however, the US government opted for the previous (and narrower) definition.

Rebecca Barnes, an assistant professor for the Environment Program at Colorado College and a member of the AGU, told Science magazine that at first she did not see a connection between sexual harassment and scientific integrity. “My gut reaction is they’re not the same level,” she said. But in her opinion, society’s perspective has evolved and there is now a prevailing sentiment that harassment has similar negative consequences on the academic environment as plagiarism or failure to credit the author of a scientific paper. “Sexual harassment can also send a signal to victims that they are not valued, which impacts the work environment.”

AGU American Geophysical Union annual meeting in 2015: new ethical guidelines aim to protect students and researchersAGU

A survey of 27 universities conducted by the Association of American Universities in 2015 showed that 62% of undergraduate students and 44% of graduate students had suffered sexual harassment in the academic environment. As well as the AGU, other scientific societies are also taking action. Last month, the American Chemical Society addressed sexual harassment in the cover story of its Chemical & Engineering News magazine, with senior editors Linda Wang and Andrea Widener reporting the experiences of several chemistry students who have been sexually harassed by professors or academic professionals. In the article, Kate Sleeth Patterson, president of the National Postdoctoral Association, talks about the conflict faced by foreign students and postdoctoral interns in the United States—including herself when she was an undergraduate—who are often threatened with removal from research groups or withdrawal of residence visas if they complain about harassment by professors.

The decision by the AGU comes at the same time as a series of scandals involving US teaching and research institutions. Florian Jaeger, a linguist and professor for the Department of Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, New York, has been accused by nine women of sexual harassment, including sending sexual pictures, offering illegal drugs at student parties, and punishing students and researchers who resisted his advances. The group, which includes staff, students, and postdoctoral interns, submitted a 111-page document to the US government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing the university’s management of protecting Jaeger—who was twice investigated and found innocent—and of retaliating against those who complained. After protests on campus, in September Dean Joel Seligman announced the opening of an independent investigation. He also promised to hire an independent investigator to review the university’s procedures regarding harassment and discrimination.

Another case involved Texas Tech University. Biologist Robert Baker was last year accused of having harassed undergraduate and graduate students for decades, and his colleague Lou Densmore was accused of inviting students to sex parties at his house. At the end of last year, American paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond resigned as curator of the Human Origins section of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, accused of harassing students and colleagues, and behaving inappropriately while working in the field (see Pesquisa FAPESP, issue No. 251).

Erika Marín-Spiotta, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, believes that sexual harassment can end science careers. She leads a US$1.1 million initiative funded by the NSF that plans to gather data on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the geosciences, a field in which women account for 39% of undergraduate students, but less than 20% of professors and researchers. Marín-Spiotta, who has implemented a compulsory training program against sexual harassment at her university, is now looking to develop strategies to help scientists respond to and prevent the problem in laboratories, classrooms, and during field research. “We so often hear that people don’t know how to respond in these instances,” she told Nature magazine. She hopes that over the coming years, her group will be able to create and implement tools to help faculty members properly intervene in incidents of sexual harassment involving students.