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Elite US science academy expels astronomer Geoff Marcy following harassment complaints

US astronomer Geoffrey Marcy during a news conference in London in 2015.

Geoffrey Marcy resigned in 2015 from the University of California, Berkeley, where an investigation had found him guilty of sexual harassment.Credit: Nikas Halle'n/AFP via Getty

The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has terminated astronomer Geoffrey Marcy’s membership, in light of sexual-harassment complaints — the first time the respected group has expelled a member.

The action comes two years after the NAS introduced a code of conduct that would allow the organization to expel members “for the most egregious violations ... including for proven cases of sexual harassment”.

The 158-year-old academy changed its by-laws following pressure from the scientific community and after the #MeToo movement, which highlighted pervasive workplace harassment and institutional failures to prevent it. In 2018, a report by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine warned that sexual harassment is widespread in academic science.

Marcy, an exoplanet researcher, resigned from his tenured position at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2015, after BuzzFeed News reported that a university investigation had found that he had broken sexual-harassment policies in several cases over nearly a decade, until 2010.

Responding to his NAS expulsion, Marcy told ScienceInsider that he has been “completely out of organized academia for over 5 years”, and that he “always supported equal opportunity and success for women in academia and science”.

“My engaging and empathic style could surely be misinterpreted, which is my fault for poor communication,” he said. “I would never intentionally hurt anyone nor cause distress.” (Marcy did not respond to Nature’ s request for comment.)

Last September, Nature reported that despite the NAS’s by-law amendment, the organization was yet to expel any harassers, even though there were public reports of investigations and findings involving current members. NAS president Marcia McNutt told Nature at the time that the organization requires a complaint be filed before it can adjudicate on a member’s status, and that no complaints had been filed.

That report prompted François-Xavier Coudert, a chemist at the French national research agency CNRS in Paris, to e-mail the organization and file complaints about four scientists, including Marcy, citing findings of inappropriate behaviour that had been reported in the press. “I found it was ridiculous as an argument for the academy to say, ‘We have a policy, but no one is filing a complaint,’” says Coudert. He had previously posted about the Nature story on Twitter; McNutt replied, urging him to take action.

“The NAS has chosen a policy that is very weak and that protects them in a way,” says Coudert.

The academy has said in the past that it does not have the resources for formal investigations, outside of internal NAS business. The group relies on publicly documented investigations carried out by other organizations to begin inquiries into its members.

The NAS this week informed Coudert of Marcy’s termination, which the chemist says is a preliminary step in the right direction.

Membership of the highly selective NAS is regarded as a top honour in US science, burnishing the profile of elected members. It also confers a degree of influence — the group is regularly tapped by US agencies to offer scientific views on national affairs.

Seyda Ipek, a theoretical particle physicist at the University of California, Irvine, also submitted a complaint last September, including public details of harassment investigations and findings concerning Marcy. “It’s really important to not allow these people in these prestigious communities, because they are doing bad things for science,” says Ipek. She says she was surprised and angry to learn that scientists continued to collaborate with the astronomer, pointing out that manuscripts posted on the arXiv preprint server in the past six months still listed Marcy as a co-author. “Where is the justice for women pushed out of the field if people continue to work with him?”

Some of those papers point to Berkeley as Marcy’s affiliation. A Berkeley spokesperson says that Marcy is currently a retired professor at the university, and that University of California policy allows retirees to refer to themselves as emeritus faculty members at those institutions. They added that the university’s 2015 announcement of Marcy’s resignation was accurate at that time.

A spokesperson for the NAS confirmed that Marcy’s membership had been rescinded as of 24 May. They did not say how many other members were under review as a result of sexual-harassment complaints.

Nature 594, 159-160 (2021)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01461-6

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