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In lopsided vote, U.S. science academy backs move to eject sexual harassers

Breaking with their 156-year history, members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) today voted overwhelmingly in favor of amending the elite organization’s bylaws to allow ejection of members who breach the group’s new Code of Conduct, which outlines offenses including sexual harassment. Historically, membership in NAS has been an honor conferred for life.

Marcia McNutt, president of NAS, noted “the importance of the signal that [today’s vote] sends. And I’m grateful for the many members who showed support for it.”

The vote by those who attended NAS’s annual business meeting in Washington, D.C., this morning was lopsided: 95 in favor; nine against; and six abstaining, according to one member who attended. But it is not final. Because of the seriousness of the proposed change to the bylaws, all 2347 academy members will be offered the chance to vote either online or by mail, which should be completed by mid-June, NAS explained in a statement. The change will require approval from a simple majority of voting members.

The vote, which would allow ejection of a member for a range of offenses against the code of conduct, including bullying, discrimination, and fabrication of research, marked the culmination of months of groundwork by McNutt and NAS’s council. They were spurred by a wave of #MeToo-era revelations of sexual harassment by scientists, including NAS members, as well as by a landmark report that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued last year that documented widespread sexual harassment in science, engineering, and medicine.

“Finally we are starting to have enough women in powerful positions to make things happen. I’m glad I lived this long to see it,” says Nancy Hopkins, who spoke in support of the amendment at today’s meeting and is a professor emeritus of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. Hopkins was the driving force behind MIT’s groundbreaking examination of its own discriminatory treatment of female faculty 25 years ago.

Vicki Lundblad, a biologist who last year settled a gender discrimination lawsuit against her institution, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, traveled to the NAS annual meeting in order to attend today’s meeting and vote on the amendment. The vote today “is a big deal,” she said afterward. “I think a lot of young people in science are looking at us and thinking: ‘Is [sexual harassment in science] going to change?’”

Lundblad credited the move by NAS leaders to advocacy by neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, who is also the founder of the nonprofit #MeTooSTEM. In May 2018, McLaughlin launched a petition urging the NAS to eject sexual harassers.

McLaughlin called today’s vote “one of the many important steps every scientific society needs to take to ensure safety. Our science leaders should be ahead of the curve on decency and equity.”

As ScienceInsider reported earlier this month, the bylaw amendment would allow a member’s ouster by a two-thirds vote of NAS’s 17-member council. An ejection vote would mark the last step in a process that could be initiated by anyone. That process would rely on NAS being presented with credible official findings from investigations by outside bodies and could end in less severe punishment.

During this morning’s discussion, there were strong statements of support for the amendment. But a few participants raised fears that the process leading to a member’s ejection, as developed by McNutt and NAS’s council, could be misused. Some evoked the climate of fear created in the 1950s by then-Senator Joseph McCarthy (R–WI), who accused people holding all kinds of positions of supporting communism and tried to force from their positions. Some suggested every NAS member should vote on each individual ouster, rather than deferring that decision to the NAS council.

NAS member Charles Bennett, an expert in the physics of computation at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, tried but failed, on procedural grounds, to amend the amendment. His proposed change would have limited ejection to those members who breached the code of conduct prior to being elected to NAS, but whose offenses were only later discovered. Members found to be guilty of present-day misconduct, he proposed, should not be kicked out but should be labeled as “disgraced” members—a designation that could later be reversed, he said, recalling the case of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a father of the atomic bomb, whose security clearance was revoked in 1954 for his alleged communist associations but who was later politically rehabilitated.

“If there was a consensus” at the meeting, Bennett emailed afterward, “it was that the bylaw change itself, opening up the possibility of rescinding membership, was an important and necessary step, but that figuring out how and under what conditions to do it would not be a simple matter.”

But McNutt was able to answer concerns about the process persuasively enough to win yes votes from nearly 90% of the those in the room. “Members were strongly in favor of the amendment,” she said. “But their concern was: ‘The devil’s in the details.’ All I had to remind them was: ‘The amendment doesn’t have any of the details.’”

Those process details, she adds, are malleable, and can be adjusted by NAS members as time goes on.

She also noted that the final vote is not a done deal: “If we really want to back up our code of conduct, we need to get this amendment into place.”