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One of the World's Biggest Scientific Societies Just Made It Possible to Strip an Honor From Alleged Harassers

Advocates see this as a concrete signal to the scientific community that bad behavior won't be tolerated.
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Lab technicians analyze blood of pregnant women at the Guatemalan Social Security Institute in Guatemala City on February 2nd, 2016.

Recent surveys have found that at least one in five female science, engineering, and medical students report being harassed by faculty or staff at their schools.

One of the world's largest scientific societies announced this week that it's making it possible for members to request that another member have an honor stripped from them if there's documented evidence that the target cheated in their research or harassed or discriminated against others. The new policy means there's a path for the kind of penalty for harassment that advocates have been calling for—a kind of penalty that remains rare, for now.

Leaders at the American Association for the Advancement of Science—a group open to scientists, science teachers, and science advocates—voted for the policy on Saturday. "What is important here is that this represents steps toward a shift in making scientific institutions responsible for dealing with this issue—not just the individuals who have been harassed," Sandra Laursen, a chemist and science-education researcher who signed a petition pushing for the policy change, writes in an email.

The new rules let any of the AAAS's 120,000-plus members request that someone be removed from the AAAS Fellowship, an elected group of about 9,000 members. The AAAS also published a summary of the process such a request would go through before the association decides whether to grant it.

"Within AAAS, election to be an AAAS Fellow is considered a very significant honor. You are nominated by your peers, on the basis of your contributions to science and society," says AAAS President Margaret Hamburg. "We feel strongly that, to be a part of that honorary group, you absolutely should meet the highest of standards of scientific conduct and professional conduct and this policy is intended to reflect a commitment to that."

Science, like other industries, is undergoing its own #MeToo movement. Recent surveys have found that at least one in five—and in some cases as many as half of—female science, engineering, and medical students report being harassed by faculty or staff at their schools. As part of the movement against gender harassment, activists have recently called for scientific societies like the AAAS to expel alleged harassers and revoke their awards. There were at least two major petitions to the AAAS specifically.

Petition-signers I spoke with agreed the new policy is a step in the right direction. "I think it's great because we were calling for kicking out known sexual harassers from our top organizations that should be leading in science," says Tisha Bohr, a biologist and postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University who's active on social media, pushing scientific organizations to develop stronger anti-harassment policies.

One worry that came up repeatedly had to do with time limits on when AAAS members can submit revocation requests. For the first two years the policy is in place, the AAAS will accept requests regarding behavior dating to any time. After that, the requests—which must be accompanied by formal documents, such as findings from a university investigation or court case—must not be made for cases whose investigations closed more than four years prior.

Signers I spoke to worry that someone who has been a victim of harassment, and wants to ask that their harasser be removed from the AAAS Fellowship, may need more than four years to feel comfortable doing so. "Within four years, she's still going to be in a very vulnerable career stage—might still be a student, might be a post-doc, might be an untenured faculty member," says Anne Jefferson, a geologist at Kent State University who led a major petition addressed to the AAAS. The victim may fear retaliation from her harasser. In one recent, high-profile case, a scientist waited more than a decade, until after she received tenure at a university, to file harassment complaints about her former supervisor.

But the AAAS has built in some flexibility around this timeline, as spokeswoman Tiffany Lohwater points out. The new policy states that AAAS leaders will revisit it and make changes, as needed, before two years is up (and when the four-year deadline would take effect). So the deadline may still change. All the petition-signers I spoke with were understanding about the AAAS's need to see how things go with the new policy, and revise it based on how their first cases fare. After all, this is new territory for everyone, organizations and advocates alike.