National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt addressed sexual harassment in science on Capitol Hill last month.

Cable Risdon

National Academy of Sciences will vote on ejecting sexual harassers

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C., will ask its members this month to change the organization’s bylaws to allow proven sexual harassers and those guilty of other misconduct to be ejected from their ranks. That’s a first for the prestigious organization that advises the U.S. government on scientific issues: Its members, who are voted in by other members, have always been elected for life.

NAS let its more than 2300 members know of the upcoming vote and directed them to information on the process of ejecting a member in an email sent on 1 April, the required month ahead of a planned vote on 30 April, at NAS’s annual meeting. The vote will ask members to approve a bylaw change to allow NAS to oust proven sexual harassers and others who breach NAS’s Code of Conduct, for example by bullying, discrimination, or plagiarism. Changing the bylaws will require “yes” votes by a simple majority of voting members.

“This vote is less about cleaning house and more about sending the message that the members of the National Academy of Sciences adhere to the highest standards of professional conduct and are serious about expecting that their colleagues abide by our code,” says Marcia McNutt, NAS president.

She’s been holding regional meetings of NAS members for months, trying to get buy-in for a yes vote from members, who are 83% male and whose average age is 72. Straw polls showed that 90% of members at those meetings favored the bylaw change, according to a background document provided to NAS members today.

Several high-profile NAS members have been found guilty by their institutions of sexual harassment or misconduct. They include neuroscientist Thomas Jessell, who was fired last year from Columbia University; Geoffrey Marcy, an astronomer who resigned from the University of California (UC), Berkeley, after that school’s findings of sexual harassment against him became public in 2015; and Francisco Ayala, who was forced out of UC Irvine last summer after an investigation found him guilty of sexual harassment.

The vote by members of an elite organization that was founded during the Civil War is a sign of the broad impact of the #MeToo movement in science. It was hinted at in May 2018 when McNutt, joined by the presidents of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering, announced her intention to do “everything possible” to prevent sexual harassment. The following month, the academies jointly published a lengthy report detailing high levels of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the sciences, engineering, and medicine.

The bylaw issue, however, is unlikely to be settled on 30 April. Because many members do not attend the annual meeting, it’s likely that those who are there will elect to give the entire membership the opportunity to vote by mail, as has been traditional for important bylaw changes.

Under a process developed by the NAS Council, any person could allege that an NAS member has breached the Code of Conduct, which is enshrined in a document published in December 2018. The accuser would have to back up the claim by submitting to NAS documentation from official findings by outside funding agencies, journals, or academic or other institutions. An ad hoc assessment panel of NAS members would then consider the evidence. If it determined the member has violated the Code of Conduct, it would recommend a sanction ranging in severity from a simple warning to ejection from NAS. A standing NAS Conduct Committee would next determine whether the recommended sanction was in keeping with past NAS punishments for similar offenses. The vote this month concerns the final step in the process in egregious cases: amending the NAS bylaws to allow a member’s ouster by a two-thirds vote of NAS’s 17-member Council, according to the background document.

“Even if this vote passes, which I hope it does,” McNutt says, NAS’s ability to punish misconduct will depend on other institutions being transparent about the actions they took in such cases. “The NAS cannot use lower standards of evidence in judging its members,” she says.

Carol Greider, an NAS member who is a biologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, welcomed the news of the upcoming vote. “It’s very important,” she says. It “sends a powerful message from the top that behavior matters.” 

But Robert Weinberg, a cancer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, characterized McNutt’s effort as a “crusade.” He adds: “Before there is a mad rush to approve such an ejection procedure, it might be useful to ask whether sexual harassment by a member has anything whatsoever to do with their credibility as a scientist and the soundness of their research accomplishments—the criteria that were used to elect them in the first place.” He argues further that criteria of guilt in sexual harassment investigations will vary “vastly” from one institution to another.

Some scientists outside of NAS support the move. “It’s important that NAS listened to scientists. That’s a really big deal. That’s one example of the ways in which science culture is changing,” says Kate Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana, who has studied sexual harassment in science and was an author on the 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report. Still, Clancy says, the changes that are needed to obviate sexual harassment in science are far broader: “If this is the only thing that any of these institutions do, then we are taking a bad apples approach rather than a rotten barrels approach.”

BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who founded the #MeTooSTEM advocacy group and who 11 months ago launched this petition urging NAS to eject harassers, says the organization is not going far enough. She is angry that NAS would require accusers to take the initiative to start the process, especially in cases like that of Ayala in which universities have already publicly concluded that an NAS member sexually harassed. NAS “doesn’t even have the decency to expel members who have been found guilty by the only systems of justice given to academics,” she says. “The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences booted [Bill] Cosby and [Roman] Polanski [but] Marcia [McNutt] is asking victims to be retraumatized” by filing a complaint, she says.

*Update, 1 April, 3 p.m.: This story has been updated to include reaction from NAS member Robert Weinberg.