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Marcia McNutt, head of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, wants members to consider ejecting harassers.

Stephen Voss

Will U.S. academies expel sexual harassers?

As high-profile sexual harassment cases fuel public criticism, the presidents of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine announced last week they may adopt new policies allowing the prestigious bodies to eject members who have committed harassment and other forms of misconduct. Members of the academies—which serve as both honorific societies and advisers to the U.S. government—are elected by existing members to life-long terms, and the bodies currently lack mechanisms for removing them for harassment.

Because scientists and the public “place much trust” in the three Washington, D.C.–based academies, their leadership councils “have begun a dialogue about the standards of professional conduct for membership,” the presidents said in a 22 May statement. “We want to be sure that we are doing everything possible to prevent sexual harassment, to instill a culture of inclusion and respect, and to reinforce that harassment is not tolerated.” The statement was signed by Marcia McNutt, head the National Academy of Sciences (NAS); C. D. Mote Jr., head of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE); and Victor Dzau, head of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM).

Some researchers welcomed the announcement. “This may seem small, but as someone who’s been working with them for 2 years, this is BIG for this organization,” tweeted Kate Clancy, an anthropologist who studies sexual harassment in science at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Clancy helped author an NAS report on sexual harassment in science that will be released on 12 June.

But Clancy and others also expressed concern that the “dialogue” would not lead to major changes, and criticized the academies for moving too slowly. “McNutt and other science society presidents have a moral imperative to get these knuckleheads out. Folks need to know women in science are done waiting for our societies to have our backs,” says neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. On 6 May, angered by an article in Science detailing allegations of sexual harassment by scientist and NAS member Inder Verma of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, McLaughlin launched an online petition asking NAS to eject members sanctioned for sexual harassment. (Verma has denied the allegations; Salk is investigating.)

McNutt argues that getting it right will take time at the staid and governance-laden academy she runs. NAS’s 17-member governing council—which includes 11 women—will discuss the issue at its next meeting, McNutt tweeted, with an eye toward having the full NAS membership vote on amending its bylaws at its annual meeting next April. The outcome of that vote is not certain, McNutt suggested in a tweet. “Anyone who thinks it is easy [to change bylaws] has not tried to get a majority vote from an honorary society of more than 80 percent men over 70 years average age.” (The average age of the 2382 NAS members is 72; 84% are men.)

NAM and NAE referred questions about how those two bodies will proceed to NAS, which said it is too early to know.

The effort comes as U.S. universities, scientific societies, and research funders are scrambling to respond to a wave of allegations of sexual harassment and scientific misconduct. One society, the American Geophysical Union, has expanded its definition of research misconduct to include sexual harassment and rescinded an honor bestowed on a scientist facing allegations of misbehavior. Universities have suspended or fired researchers under investigation for harassment, or found to be harassers.

Until last week, however, the academies had remained mostly silent on how they might address misconduct among their 7000 members, despite mounting criticism. As of 29 May, more than 2700 people had signed the petition launched by McLaughlin, which asked NAS to kick out members “who have been sanctioned for sexual harassment, retaliation and assault.”

The conundrum presented by lifetime memberships in the academies has been apparent for some time. NAM member Arthur Kellermann, dean of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) in Bethesda, Maryland, last year filed a complaint urging his academy to eject physician Eric Noji. A 2016 investigation by the university found that Noji, who had been an adjunct professor at USUHS, had plagiarized several research papers and misrepresented his credentials prior to his election to NAM, according to The New York Times. The university fired Noji, but he remains a member of NAM. In late 2016, the case prompted NAM to adopt a new rule allowing it to “rescind” a membership if “it is later determined by an authorized body that the information relied on for election is false.”

Other current academies members could be vulnerable to expulsion under new bylaws covering harassment. In 2015, astronomer Geoffrey Marcy resigned from the University of California, Berkeley, after Buzzfeed published the results of a university investigation that concluded he had violated its policies on sexual harassment. In March, Thomas Jessell, a Columbia University neuroscientist, was fired by the school and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute after a university investigation concluded he had violated Columbia’s policies on consensual sexual relationships between faculty and students, according to the Columbia Daily Spectator.

Exactly how the academies would carry out an expulsion and what evidence they might require before acting are just two questions facing their leadership councils. Some argue that findings of misconduct by an institution should be enough to hit the eject button. But NAS member Robert Weinberg, a cancer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, disagrees. “I have little faith that findings of sexual harassment by the host institutions of accused parties will be adjudicated in a fashion that applies uniform standards of evidence and fairness,” Weinberg wrote in an email to Science.

“It’s important to make sure there was due process. … Allegations should not be sufficient to eject a member,” says Robert Cook-Deegan, a longtime observer of the academies and a science policy specialist with Arizona State University who is based in Washington, D.C. He adds: “The academies would do well not to get into the policing and prosecution, but rather identify the findings of courts or systematic and credible administrative processes.”

Unlike the U.S. academies, several foreign honorary societies do have procedures for ejecting members for misconduct. But the German academy (called the Leopoldina) and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences have not in living memory ejected members, according to their spokespeople. At the Royal Society in the United Kingdom, “the list of expulsions is largely historical and the top reason cited is non-payment of subscriptions,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

AAAS (publisher of Science) in Washington, D.C., also has no mechanism for ejecting fellows, who are elected for life. But spokesperson Tiffany Lohwater says AAAS leaders are drafting a policy for revoking fellows who don’t live up to “the commonly held standards of professional ethics and scientific integrity.”