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Evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

National Academy of Sciences ejects biologist Francisco Ayala in the wake of sexual harassment findings

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has expelled evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala from its ranks 3 years after he was found to have sexually harassed women colleagues. Ayala, who resigned from the University of California (UC), Irvine, in 2018 after a university investigation found him guilty of sexual harassment, is the second member NAS has ousted over sexual harassment allegations since the organization revised its bylaws 2 years ago to allow members to be removed if they violate its code of conduct.

“Finally,” Jessica Pratt, an associate professor at UC Irvine who had filed a complaint with the university against Ayala, wrote in an email to Science. “I feel relief that for victims of sexual harassment or violence, their path to justice might be easier now because of changes in policy.” But she and others say NAS’s process was too slow.

In an email yesterday, NAS wrote that its Council had rescinded Ayala’s membership, effective immediately. An NAS spokesperson confirmed the decision. Ayala, who was elected to NAS in 1980 declined to comment on NAS’s action, but has vehemently denied the allegations against him, which included making sexually suggestive comments and inviting a junior professor to sit on his lap. The announcement comes weeks after NAS expelled astronomer Geoff Marcy, who in 2015 had been found guilty of sexual harassment by UC Berkeley.

“This is justice, but too little, too late, and at too high of a cost to victims,” Kathleen Treseder, an ecologist at UC Irvine who had filed a complaint with the university about Ayala’s behavior, tweeted yesterday.

NAS began to consider sanctions against Ayala and Marcy last fall, when François-Xavier Coudert, a computational chemist at the French national research agency CNRS, and Seyda Ipek, a theoretical particle physicist at UC Irvine, independently filed complaints with NAS. Neither was connected to the cases of Ayala or Marcy, but they took action after President Marcia McNutt encouraged people to do so on Twitter.

Pratt notes, however, that she filed her original complaint with UC Irvine in 2015. “That timeline for meaningful action to be taken is unacceptable,” she says. Nancy Hopkins, an emeritus biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NAS member, also agrees that the academy’s actions come too late. But, “Better late than never,” she says.

“This is really a trial period. … The key now is to make sure the process is effective and people believe it was fair.”

NAS requires official results of an institutional investigation, so a key question is whether the policies of individual institutions are effective, Hopkins says. Coudert thinks NAS should be able to launch its own investigations. “As soon as the allegations are in the public records … they should be able to launch [an investigation], if they deem it appropriate,” he says. “[Filing a complaint] may be up to the victims so it’s adding to their pain.”

Coudert also included two other names in his fall 2020 complaint to NAS: Sergio Verdú, an information theorist formerly at Princeton University; and Inder Verma, a cancer biologist formerly at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Coudert says NAS told him the organization is waiting to take action in Verdú’s case until a lawsuit he filed against Princeton is resolved. In the case of Verma, who resigned in 2018 after Science published accounts from eight women who alleged he had sexually harassed them, Coudert says NAS implied it cannot move forward because the Salk Institute has not released the results of its investigation, and cannot act on the basis of media reports.

Both Ayala and Verma have also been named as Fellows of AAAS (which publishes Science). But the organization stripped both scientists of that honor last year after adopting a new policy for ejecting harassers in 2018.

In April, Science learned that NAS had received a complaint of sexual harassment against a fifth NAS member, whose name was not disclosed. “I’m looking forward to hearing decisions on those cases,” Ipek says.