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For the first time since its founding in 1863, the National Academy of Sciences will allow expulsion of members for serious offenses including sexual harassment.

Maxwell MacKenzie/National Academy of Sciences

National Academy of Sciences to allow expulsion of harassers

The prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C., has voted to allow expulsion of members for breaches of its Code of Conduct, including sexual harassment. Until now, election to the 156-year-old academy, a pinnacle of scientific achievement, has been a lifetime honor.

In voting that concluded on 31 May with results announced this morning, 84% of those who cast ballots approved an amendment to the organization’s bylaws, allowing expulsion of a member by a two-thirds vote of NAS’s 17-member Council; 16% voted against the change. The average age of NAS members is 72; 83% are men. Although 2242 NAS members were eligible to vote, the academy did not disclose how many participated.

“All women who have had a tough road—even those who have made it—I’m sure like me are happy to see this day where they can finally say: ‘The climate is gonna change,’” says Marcia McNutt, president of NAS, who drove the vote to the change the bylaws. “No longer will a climate be tolerated that doesn’t allow women to have the same chance as their male colleagues to thrive.”

The change comes in response to the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. In June 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), of which NAS is a part, issued a landmark report documenting pervasive sexual harassment in those disciplines, including a broad experience of gender hostility that goes beyond groping and has driven untold numbers of women out of science.

“We know from research that one of the most potent predictors of sexual harassment is the organization’s tolerance of it,” says Lilia Cortina, an expert on sexual harassment at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a member of the committee that wrote the 2018 NASEM report. “This vote … sends a strong message that this institution will not tolerate gender-based abuse or harbor known abusers.”

Under a process developed by NAS’s Council and described in greater detail here, any person can bring a complaint about an NAS member for any breach of the organization’s Code of Conduct, which spans behaviors including bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment, and scientific misconduct—the last defined as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism. NAS would not itself investigate such claims. Rather, the complainant must document wrongdoing by presenting official findings by outside funding agencies, journals, or academic or other institutions.

McNutt says she “very soon” expects a number of requests to expel existing members. “I think some will be more straightforward than others.” NAS members whose universities have concluded that they sexually harassed women include astronomer Geoff Marcy, formerly of the University of California (UC), Berkeley, and evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala, formerly of UC Irvine.

A year ago, BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, founded the nonprofit #MeTooSTEM and launched a petition since signed by 5889 people urging NAS to expel harassers. “I’m thrilled,” she says of the vote. “Belonging to a scientific society is an honor, not a right. I hope other science societies do the same immediately.”

Others see the change as just a first step. “I challenge all members of the NAS to take the next step to change their home institutions. American science depends on it,” says Nobel laureate Carol Greider, an NAS member and biologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

The presidents of the other U.S. academies—the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering—also committed last year to addressing sexual harassment. The National Academy of Medicine in January amended its bylaws to allow expulsion of sexual harassers, President Victor Dzau told Science today.

*Correction, 3 June, 2:20 p.m.: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that the National Academy of Medicine has already amended its bylaws to allow the expulsion of sexual harassers.