Top AAAS Official Calls for Broader Scientific Research Misconduct Policing

Six scientific organizations use National Science Foundation funding to launch effort to address sexual harassment in the sciences. | AGU

A top executive at AAAS, the world’s largest general scientific organization, is urging federal officials to broaden the definition of research misconduct to include sexual harassment, saying such behavior is unacceptable and should carry serious financial repercussions.

Celeste Rohlfing, AAAS’ chief operating officer, said putting significant federal research grants at risk would serve as a powerful deterrent both to such behavior, as well as weak institutional oversight. Rohlfing made the comments as more than 60 leaders representing various fields of science, academia, federal agencies, and professional scientific societies gathered on 9 Sept. to begin working on a framework to guide scientific organizations on how best to take on sexual and gender-based harassment on campuses, in scientific labs, during field research, and at scientific meetings.

“Sexual harassment in research settings is an affront to the profession of science and violates our ethical standards,” Rohlfing said. “As federal agencies have oversight authority for their funded awards, their Inspectors General should broaden the definition of research misconduct so they can investigate allegations and determine corrective actions that universities appear unwilling to take.”

The proposal comes amid a spate of media reports detailing instances of sexual harassment – most targeted against women – and the subsequent departures of once-renowned researchers known for attracting lucrative federal research grants and earning their academic institutions prestige. Among institutions recently scarred by the scandals are the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.    

Like most employers, federal, academic, and scientific organizations and institutions, including AAAS, are governed by employment and professional guidelines. Federal and state laws that bar discrimination of all kinds and establish workplace conduct rules that prohibit harassment also apply. Further, scientific research organizations and institutes that receive federal research funding are covered under Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in any federally funded education program.

Rohlfing’s proposal would expand the reach of the existing legal framework available to employees who have been harassed, intimidated, or even assaulted by their superiors or colleagues and could prompt swifter and more public investigations.

Most federal agencies that issue research grants leave research misconduct to their respective Inspectors General, the independent units in federal and military agencies authorized to police waste, fraud, and abuse in the programs under their purview. But such oversight is not uniform. The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, relies on its Office of Research Integrity to handle research misconduct.

Six scientific organizations join together to ensure that the science workplace is an “inviting, safe culture for science,” says the American Geophysical Union’s president elect. | AGU

The recent workshop entitled “Sexual Harassment in the Sciences: A Call to Respond” was funded by the National Science Foundation and convened by the American Geophysical Union. Co-sponsoring organizations included AAAS, the American Chemical Society, the American Geosciences Institute, the Association for Women Geoscientists, and the Earth Science Women’s Network.

The groups plan to gather facts on such things as the prevalence of harassment in science settings and potential remedies. They will review existing laws and regulations, consider an April report of sexual misconduct procedures that was conducted by the University of California, collect recommendations on how best to foster harassment-free environments on campuses, in the classroom and in the field, and explore the role scientific societies can play in process. The group plans to issue its findings and a set of guiding principles by year’s end.

“Sexual harassment is an unacceptable, yet persistent issue facing the scientific community. We need to work together to create a safe, supportive environment and culture that encourages young scientific talent rather than deterring it,” said Eric Davidson, president-elect, of the American Geophysical Union. “For scientific innovation to flourish, the community needs to take a powerful stance against sexual harassment and we call on our friends across other scientific organizations, research institutions, and societies to join us. It’s our responsibility to provide members, employees, and constituents with the awareness and tools needed to create an inviting, safe culture for science.”

Blair Schneider, president of the Association for Women Geoscientists, said sexual harassment has long been a persistent problem for women practicing in the sciences as well as those considering pursuing science careers.  

“It is appalling that it has been prevalent in the science community for so long, and we are thrilled to finally see scientific societies and institutions coming together to address and act upon the important role we play in helping to put an end to this. I hope to see other societies and organizations rise up and join us in this effort and look forward to seeing the progress we make over the next few years,” Schneider said.