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Societies Take a Stand Against Harassment With New Initiative

Attendees Propose Actions to Make Science Safer and More Diverse

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At the AAAS meeting, Margaret Hamburg said scientists must address cultural shifts in their fields. | Robb Cohen Photography & Video

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has joined 77 leading academic and professional societies in a new group to address sexual harassment in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM).

The Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM, launched 15 February, acknowledges the unique role that professional societies have in setting standards and taking action on sexual and gender harassment in the sciences, its leaders said at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

“We need to put our positions on the record,” said AAAS senior adviser Shirley Malcom during a panel session that announced the consortium. “Harassment of any kind is death to our enterprise. We are trying to attract and encourage talent, but when we don’t provide a climate that is safe, we either push them out or we don’t get them in to begin with.”

The consortium will provide research, resources, and guidance to address sexual harassment in the member societies, as well as more broadly in the fields they represent. As a start, the group will focus on model policies and procedures for society honors and awards.

In September 2018, the AAAS Council approved a new policy that established sexual and gender-based harassment as a breach of professional ethics that could lead to the revocation of AAAS Fellow status. AAAS has also joined the American Educational Resource Association and 73 scientific societies in opposing proposed changes to the federal Title IX law that would narrow the definition of sexual harassment and restrict processes for reporting harassment at U.S. schools and colleges.

AAAS “recognizes that in our role of defending the conditions under which science can thrive, we must promote diversity, protect against bias, and foster opportunity,” the society’s CEO, Rush Holt, said at a breakfast for international reporters at the Annual Meeting.

A 2018 analysis by the U.S. National Academies concluded that more than 50% of women faculty and staff, and 20% to 50% of women students, at U.S. academic institutions report having been sexually harassed.

These reports and others confirm that the scientific community “is not immune” to problems of harassment and prejudice that have gained prominence in recent years, said Margaret Hamburg in her presidential address to open the 2019 meeting.

“We must recognize that, in our own community, certain groups are, and have always been, disenfranchised in ways that harm well-being and prevent people from fulfilling their potential,” said Hamburg, who now serves as AAAS Board chair. “It is no longer enough to be concerned, even outraged, by this problem. It’s time to fix it.”

Attendees discussed issues related to women and underrepresented minorities across several scientific symposia and career workshops throughout the meeting, including the disparate numbers of women in the life sciences compared to engineering and computer science, the underrepresentation of women as first and last authors in top-tier journal papers, and the specific challenges faced by minorities in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) career pipeline.

Harassment, bias, and disenfranchisement of women and underrepresented minorities take a toll on the national research and innovation enterprise, said Kelvin Droegemeier, head of the U.S. Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP), in a keynote speech at the meeting. “The enhancement of diversity in STEM is absolutely essential. It is not an option, it is a national imperative and progress is needed right now.”

The speech was Droegemeier’s first major public address since taking on the role of White House OSTP director in January. Echoing remarks by Hamburg and others at the meeting, Droegemeier suggested that scientists could “light a path for others” on the issue of harassment. “The standard of behavior that we expect from the scientific community must apply everywhere that research is conducted.”

The Washington, D.C., meeting, held from 14 through 17 February, was the 185th gathering of AAAS. Under the theme “Science Transcending Boundaries,” participants discussed ways to enhance and protect science’s international collaborations from trends such as the rise in nationalism in the United States and other countries.

“We want to continue to support and emphasize that kind of science which has proven so productive rather than retreat into an approach that is really focused on what we are doing domestically,” said Hamburg, who chose the meeting theme at the start of her AAAS presidency.

Other topics at the meeting blurred boundaries between scientific disciplines and suggested new ways for researchers to work across their fields. In several symposia and lectures, speakers noted the importance of collaborations with social science researchers in order to meet the challenges posed by robotics and artificial intelligence, respond to natural disasters, and prepare for the local economic impacts of climate change.

Family Science Days, a free weekend event held by AAAS in conjunction with its Annual Meeting since 2004, gave the public a chance to do experiments like extracting strawberry DNA and to participate in conversations with researchers—with some interviews conducted by students wielding reporters’ notebooks courtesy of the public engagement program Science Storytellers.

“What makes Family Science Days unique is that it is incredibly interactive,” said Stacey Baker, who organizes the event for the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. “When deciding who’s exhibiting, everything is based on what hands-on activity they’re providing for the kids. It’s a place where they can really jump right in and experience the science for themselves.”

Tiffany Lohwater and Adam Cohen contributed to this article.

This article originally appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the March 29 issue of Science.