Skip to main content

BethAnn McLaughlin can still remember the moment when, as she puts it, she lost her mind. It was just this past spring. The science establishment had, at that point, been going through its own #MeToo movement for last two and a half years. News stories about high-profile scientists who were alleged to have sexually harassed their colleagues finally captured more widespread attention; often, the reports led to the alleged harassers' resignations. In one recent case, a university decided to remove a faculty member's name from a campus building after an internal investigation found him guilty of harassment.

But after reading about allegations against famed geneticist Inder Verma, McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, realized Verma was still a member of the National Academy of Sciences. So were several other scientists whose universities had found them guilty of violating their harassment policies. The National Academy is a non-profit, non-governmental organization created by Congress in 1863 to advise the government. It's a prestigious group to which scientists must be elected by their peers; there are no provisions in its bylaws for removing members. About one in six members are women, according to numbers provided by the academy.*

"The Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] has run laps around us," McLaughlin says, referring to the organization most notable for its annual Academy Awards. "They've kicked out Roman Polanski. They've kicked out Bill Cosby. For a profession that is supposed to be based on logic and information, this is not who we're supposed to be."

At least one in five female science students are harassed by faculty or staff, a recent National Academy-sponsored survey found.

Frustrated with the academy's inaction, McLaughlin started a campaign to encourage the National Academy of Sciences to remove alleged harassers from its ranks. Her petition now has more than 4,000 signatures. She called out the academy's president, Marcia McNutt, over Twitter. But McLaughlin says the problem runs deeper than just the National Academy. She and some like-minded peers are aiming to strip scientists who have been sanctioned for bad behavior, whether by courts or institutions, of various outside scientific awards and resources. They hope to see such individuals expelled from all of the nation's top honors for scientists, prevented from being elected to positions of honor, and prevented from receiving federal grants for training other scientists who are early in their careers.

It's accolades and plaudits like those, some say, that keep people accused of harassment in power. Honors like National Academy membership "tends to give these guys more of an air of invincibility at their home institutions," says Alberto Roca, a biologist and founder of Plus, the academy's secret nomination process serves to keep underrepresented minorities out, Roca says: "If it's a process where members refer other, potential members, then that old boys' network will just continue to repeat itself. It isn't an open transparent application process like grants or fellowships."

"These honors and privileges allow for people who have abused their position in power to retaliate" against subordinates who report to authorities they've been harassed, McLaughlin says.

This isn't the first time the science community has suggested these types of sanctions for scientists alleged to have harassed others. Last year, the American Geophysical Union and the American Astronomical Society, two professional societies for scientists, updated their ethics policies, underscoring their right to remove members if internal investigations determine the member has repeatedly harassed others at society-sponsored events, or falsified data in society publications. The AGU's policy also mentions revoking awards. (Christine Jones, the former president of AAS, says the society has not yet revoked anyone’s membership. The AGU did not respond to an inquiry about whether it had ever removed a member.) But McLaughlin's campaign represents an additional, grassroots push for action among science's institutions.

As a result of her work, questions about the National Academy’s own policies have dogged the recent publication of its seminal, two-year study of harassment in science. During a public event last month, Roca asked McNutt, the NAS president, whether the academy was considering any policies aimed at preventing those professors who have been put on leave following harassment allegations from being nominated into the group.

"I think it would be extremely unlikely that a candidate would be put up for nomination and there would be no one from that university who would know that the person had been put on leave," McNutt said. "But this is something that we will definitely explore, to make sure it is not a loophole in our process."

McLaughlin, who watched the event over livestream, is skeptical of McNutt's reliance on universities' screening processes. "That [assumption] is just flat wrong," she tells me. "They've already nominated these other people. They've already put them through the system."

The National Academy of Sciences building, in Washington, D.C.

The National Academy of Sciences building, in Washington, D.C.

For now, McLaughlin is focusing on the National Academy of Sciences, which she says has done little by way of actual policy to address its glaring harassment problem. For example, McNutt and other staff have said the academy leadership is looking at its disciplinary options for sanctioning members, but that kicking members out would require the institution to change its bylaws, which in turn requires the entire membership to vote on the issue. "That a bunch of male scientists, with a smattering of women, will put to a vote whether or not perpetrating violence against women is wrong and an honor should be removed from them? That's disgusting to me," McLaughlin says. (The academy did not respond to a request for comment on McLaughlin's view on the issue of voting to decide membership policy.)

But there are more actions waiting in the wings. McLaughlin and others recently agitated over Twitter to get to drop its "chili pepper" marking for instructors whom students rated as physically attractive. Some professors argued the pepper was damaging to women in their profession. complied with the demand.

A Web page maintained by Julie Libarkin, a geography education researcher at Michigan State University, offers another hint of what's to come. Since 2016, Libarkin has kept a list of public reports of university faculty and administrators who have been found guilty of sexual harassment, admitted to harassment, resigned before their institutions could finish an investigation of harassment allegations, or settled with their accusers. The list indicates folks who are members of the National Academy of Sciences, or are fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, another national honor.

Over email, Libarkin says she hopes her list raises awareness around the prevalence of harassment in science, and alerts hiring committees of allegations against any potential hire. Meanwhile McLaughlin has created another online petition, this one meant to get the AAAS to kick out alleged harassers. That petition has only three signatures, at the time of this publication. In an email, AAAS spokesperson Tiffany Lohwater writes that the association is at work on a draft policy for revoking fellowships, which its elected council will consider.

It's high time science institutions take action against harassers, McLaughlin says: "We shouldn't sit around and study this anymore. Women are being hurt by this."

*Update—July 11th, 2018: This article has been updated to reflect the year in which the National Academy was founded.