US science academy leaders approve plan to expel sexual harassers

The National Academy of Sciences has come under pressure to address misconduct in recent years.

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Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, speaks to the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee

Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, has come under criticism for her handling of concerns about sexual harassment in science.Credit: Cable Risdon/Risdonfoto/courtesy National Academy of Sciences

The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is moving ahead with a policy that would allow it to expel members found guilty of sexual harassment.

The academy’s governing council voted to proceed with the plan on 30 April at the NAS annual meeting in Washington DC. That clears the way for a final vote by the academy’s 2,380 members. The NAS says that the vote will be completed by mid-June, and that a simple majority is needed to finalize the policy.

The proposal would amend the academy by-laws to “permit the NAS Council to rescind membership for the most egregious violations to a new Code of Conduct, including for proven cases of sexual harassment”, the academy said in a statement. The amendment would allow the NAS to oust a member if two-thirds of its governing council approved the action.

But the NAS has not yet finalized the process by which it will evaluate allegations that a member has violated its code of conduct, said president Marcia McNutt. The amendment would give the academy’s governing council the power to develop that process and to approve any changes to it over time.

“The amendment just allows the outcome (removal of a member from the NAS by a vote of 2/3rds of council), but not all of the details by which the NAS would get there,” McNutt said in an e-mail. “I hope that it will pass the full membership.”

Positive reaction

Several academy members told Nature that they support the amendment. “I think it sends a positive signal for accountability and says to the community that even this very prestigious coveted membership is not for everybody,” says Akiko Iwasaki, an immunobiologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who was sworn in as an NAS member on 28 April. “It’s only reserved for people who respect others.”

Meg Urry, an astrophysicist at Yale, agrees. “People who hit on their students have damaged all of us, and have held back the progress of science. They should not be making decisions about the future of that science,” says Urry, an NAS member.

She adds: “It’s probably impossible to repair the damage done by egregious offenses — for example, retrieving the students pushed out of a field, reinstating the colleagues who didn’t measure up to someone who cheated, that kind of thing — but at least we can make sure the offenders are not leaders in the field.”

But others who support the amendment say that it is not enough to deter improper behaviour. “This is a step, a very important one, to state a policy of zero tolerance,” says Eric Rignot, an Earth scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and a new NAS member. “But there is more to do.” He cites studies that suggest punishing people for misconduct isn't enough to bring about change; instead, doing so requires engaging communities in a broader discussion.

Next steps

The NAS has come under pressure in recent years to address sexual harassment and misconduct by its members, following the revelations that several had been found guilty of such behaviour by their institutions. And last June, a report released by the NAS, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine found that sexual harassment is pervasive in US science.

The report’s release renewed calls for the NAS to address sexual harassment or misconduct by its members, who are elected for life. An online petition launched in May 2018 by neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, has garnered almost 6,000 signatures in favour of expelling NAS members who have been sanctioned for sexual harassment, retaliation or assault. The academy does not currently have a procedure for removing members.

The NAS has been criticized for moving too slowly on the issue. McNutt, its president since 2016, has countered that making such changes takes time. “I will have one chance to get this done right or risk jeopardizing any reform for years,” she wrote in a 23 May 2018 tweet. Over the past year, McNutt has met with NAS members to discuss how the academy might address misconduct in its ranks.

The academy approved a code of conduct in December 2018 that allows any member to report allegations of misconduct ― including discrimination, harassment and bullying ― by other members. But it does not specify a mechanism for removing a member found to have violated the policy.

The amendment now in play applies only to the NAS; the National Academy of Medicine and National Academy of Engineering have developed their own codes of conduct. NAS spokesperson Molly Galvin says that the three academies will harmonize their policies after the NAS membership vote concludes.

The results of the vote, which will be conducted electronically, are expected by mid-June, Galvin says.

NAS members present at the academy’s business meeting on 30 April strongly supported the amendment in a preliminary procedural vote. “I didn't write down the tally, but it was overwhelmingly passed,” McNutt said. “The vote for the amendment was in the high 90's, against in single digits.”

She noted, however, that many of the 600 or so NAS members who had attended the group’s annual meeting left before the business meeting at which the amendment vote took place.

Slow progress

Julie Libarkin, a geoscientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing, says she is glad that the NAS is addressing sexual harassment. “It is heartening when a society that is so built and in place is willing to embrace some forms of change,” she says.

Libarkin maintains a database of more than 700 incidents in which scientists have been found guilty of sexual misconduct — including six members of the national academies of science, engineering and medicine. The number of harassers in the academies’ ranks is probably much larger, she says, but few harassment findings in academia are made public. Most are settled internally by institutions.

Other high-profile scientific societies have moved in recent years to institute policies against sexual harassment and misconduct. In 2017, the American Geophysical Union added harassment, bullying and discrimination to a list of “scientific misconduct” violations that could lead to sanctions, including the revocation of a person’s awards or membership. And in 2018, the American Association for the Advancement of Science adopted a policy that allows it to expel elected fellows for “proven scientific misconduct or serious breaches of professional ethics”, including sexual harassment.

But an unpublished study by Libarkin and her colleagues suggests that these groups are a minority. The researchers analysed the policies of 305 professional societies and research institutions and found that fewer than 2% met the minimum criteria set in the 1980s by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for sexual misconduct policies. These include providing mechanisms by which a person can report harassment, and holding perpetrators accountable for their behaviour.

Nature 569, 168 (2019)

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 30 April 2019: Updated with details of the NAS amendment and comments from Iwasaki, McNutt, Rignot and Urry.

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