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National academy may eject two famous scientists for sexual harassment

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is moving for the first time to expel sexual harassers from its membership. Science has learned that the institution is adjudicating complaints that could lead to the ejection of astronomer Geoffrey Marcy and evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala.

The process is unfolding 2 years after the prestigious, 158-year-old academy changed its bylaws to allow expulsion of members. Until then, membership had been for life. Rescinding membership is the most drastic penalty under the new rules, which also allow for lesser sanctions.

With the potential moves against Marcy and Ayala, “We are watching social change happening in front of our eyes,” says Nancy Hopkins, an NAS member and emeritus biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It has been a long time coming.”

Scientists are elected to NAS by existing members and serve as advisers who develop reports for the U.S. government. NAS’s 2342 U.S. members are on average 72 years old; 81% are men.

In June 2019, NAS changed its bylaws to allow a member to be ousted if an employer, funder, or other institution documented violations that breach NAS’s Code of Conduct; that code bars “all forms of discrimination, harassment and bullying,” as well as plagiarism and other offenses. But no one came forward to complain about an alleged sexual harasser. In September 2020, François-Xavier Coudert, a computational chemist at CNRS, the French national research agency, read a news article in Nature noting that at the time the academy had received no such complaints.

Anyone can file a complaint, but Coudert says the idea of bringing the allegations himself “felt weird because I am not … based in the U.S. and I know none of these people.” But after he called out NAS on Twitter, President Marcia McNutt responded: “FILE A COMPLAINT already.”

He did so on 21 September, in an email he provided to Science, alleging that four NAS members were guilty of sexual harassment: Ayala; Marcy; Sergio Verdú, an information theorist formerly at Princeton University; and Inder Verma, a cancer biologist formerly at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. (Others later also filed complaints with NAS.)

Marcy was forced out of the University of California (UC), Berkeley, in 2015 after BuzzFeed published details of the university’s Title IX investigation finding him guilty of sexual harassment, including kissing and groping students. (Marcy repeatedly apologized for being a “source of distress” to women, but disagreed with some of their complaints. He did not respond to Science’s requests for comment on the NAS proceedings.)

Ayala was terminated from UC Irvine in 2018, after a Title IX investigation found that he had sexually harassed colleagues including making sexually suggestive comments and inviting a junior professor to sit on his lap. Ayala told Science last week that he “absolutely” denies the allegations. NAS Executive Director Ken Fulton wrote to Coudert in November that the academy had begun to adjudicate the cases of Ayala and Marcy.

In the case of Verma, Science in 2018 published accounts spanning 40 years from eight women who alleged he sexually harassed them; Verma denied the allegations. Salk also investigated, but kept its findings under wraps. That prevented NAS from moving forward, Fulton implied to Coudert. NAS requires official findings of sexual harassment by an organization with jurisdiction over an NAS member. “The NAS cannot act on the basis of media reports,” Fulton wrote.

Princeton dismissed Verdú in 2018 after a Title IX investigation concluded that he sexually harassed one of his graduate students, and a separate probe found he violated a policy prohibiting consensual relationships with students. He has denied both allegations. NAS is deferring action in the case pending the outcome of a lawsuit Verdú filed against Princeton, Fulton told Coudert.

NAS has received a complaint of sexual harassment against a fifth NAS member, which is also being held pending more information, McNutt says. (NAS keeps the names of accused members confidential.) NAS has also received three other complaints, alleging bullying, unspecified “non-scientific misconduct,” and raising an authorship dispute. All were dismissed for want of documentation, McNutt says.

The major impact of the new rules may be preemptive, McNutt thinks. “The biggest change I have witnessed is how much the members are taking into account the conduct of colleagues before putting them forward for membership,” she says.

Hopkins welcomes that information. “That’s very exciting and it’s a reflection of the change we want,” she says. “It used to be ‘Oh well, if someone’s a great scientist we will put up with anything.’”