The scientific world, like so many industries, is finally reckoning with widespread sexual and gender-based harassment within its ranks. This week, a number of prominent organizations and groups have pledged to take concrete steps to deter and punish scientists who engage in sexual misconduct. But outside observers are still skeptical about how meaningful these changes will actually be.
On Saturday, the leadership council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—one of the most influential scientific organizations in the world—unanimously approved a policy overhaul, one that would allow elite scientists credibly accused of sexual harassment to have their prestigious status as an AAAS Fellow revoked.
The AAAS, formed in 1848, is the largest professional and multidisciplinary scientific society in the world. Aside from connecting member scientists across the globe, the AAAS also runs Science, a highly respected peer-reviewed journal.
Every year, the AAAS elects scientists who are held in high regard within their field to become AAAS fellows. According to the organization, there are at least 9,000 elected fellows who are active members of AAAS, and about 400 new fellows are voted in annually. Previous fellows have included inventor Thomas Edison, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and DNA pioneer James Watson.
Before, AAAS fellowship was a lifetime deal. But under the new policy, another AAAS member can request that someone have their status stripped if they’re shown to have committed scientific misdeeds like research fraud or to have engaged in a serious breach of professional ethics. The policy also clearly defines gendered harassment as a type of ethical breach.
The AAAS will only remove fellows whose harassment has been extensively documented by outside institutions. And while journalists from its namesake journal, Science, have reported on and investigated alleged harassers, the organization itself will not conduct its own independent investigations.
“AAAS does not feel it is in a position to take on an investigative role; it doesn’t have the expertise and resources to undertake that activity in a fair and professionally appropriate way,” Margaret Hamburg, the current president of AAAS, told Gizmodo.
Hamburg declined to speak about any possible individuals that could have their status revoked as a result of the new policy. But AAAS fellows such as Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist at Arizona State University, and Francisco Ayala, a geneticist formerly at the University of California (UC), Irvine, were previously found guilty of violating their university’s sexual harassment guidelines.
In an editorial about the new policy published Thursday in Science, Hamburg and other senior AAAS staff held it up as an example of the systemic change “needed to create an inclusive organizational culture and professional standards of behavior that will allow all of its members to reach their full potential.”
Hamburg told Gizmodo that the internal discussion surrounding a potential change began more than two years ago. But there has been visible pressure from outside scientists in recent months to enact such a policy, most publicly in the form of a Change.org petition started by BethAnn McLaughlin, a Vanderbilt University neuroscientist, this May.
In that sense, the AAAS’ new policy is welcome news to scientists like Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois who has studied gendered harassment within science.
“Bravo for responding to scientists who have asked for a mechanism to remove fellows, and bravo to those scientists for holding AAAS accountable,” Clancy told Gizmodo via email.
But even as organizations like the AAAS have been willing to acknowledge the problem of harassment, practical change is still slow.
In August, a panel of experts convened by the National Academies of Sciences, another leading scientific organization, released a landmark report, detailing the depth and pervasiveness of harassment, bullying, and ostracization of women scientists (Clancy contributed to the report).
But scientists have attacked the NAS for not taking its own advice and being willing to revoke the membership of known harassers. McLaughlin, for instance, sent a similar petition to the NAS in May. In response, NAS leadership has said that it is considering revisions to its membership policy, but added that any changes to its bylaws would require a majority vote from its members, a vote that might not take place until next April.
Elsewhere, the director of the National Institutes of Health—one of the major sources of publicly funded research in the U.S.— Francis Collins on Monday called sexual harassment “morally indefensible.” That same day, the NIH debuted a website outlining its harassment policies and promised to streamline the process for reporting harassment within its internal research program. But the agency was quickly criticized for not laying out any new, aggressive policies, such as pulling NIH funding from scientists found guilty of harassment by their institutions.
By comparison, the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency, finalized a new policy this week that will require universities and institutes that have received NSF funding to directly notify them of funded scientists found guilty of harassment. Under the policy, the NSF will consider transferring their funding to other scientists within the same lab, or outright suspending it altogether.
As Clancy notes, combating harassment within science will require nothing less than a complete paradigm shift on the part of academic institutions as well as organizations like the AAAS, and not just in how they treat known harassers.
“Now AAAS needs to turn its attention to the important work of changing the culture of science. They need to make these behaviors less acceptable,” she said. “We need to ask ourselves if we really want to be a discipline that rewards cruelty rather than compassion, and if contempt for women and people of color should be a standard part of the American scientific workplace.”
Hamburg, for her part, agrees that the AAAS’ new policy is only the beginning.
“I think AAAS, like so many organizations, is in a moment of self-examination of policies and procedures within our institution, and also with regards to the role AAAS can play in using our influence and networks and credibility to address some of the more basic issues and concerns that are driving the culture and climate that enables sexual harassment to occur,” she said.
That’s easier said than done, according to Sherry Marts, an independent researcher who has also documented and studied workplace harassment and is currently the president and CEO of S*Marts Consulting.
“What gives these policies meaning is how, and how well, they are enforced,” she told Gizmodo via email. “It’s one thing for a organization to say they won’t tolerate sexual harassment, but if there are no real—and by real I mean in some way painful—consequences for the harassers, the harassment won’t stop.”
The AAAS’ new policy is set to go into effect on October 15.