Eminent Scientists are not Special Snowflakes

Sixth Iteration of a Koch function. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Koch_Snowflake_6th_iteration.svg

So yesterday, a story on Buzzfeed broke about an extremely prominent member of the astronomy community, Geoff Marcy, who has admitted sexually harassing a number of women within his own department of physics. This apparently was an “open secret” not only within the department, but also within the larger astronomy community. Women in that community had been forced to use an informal “Keep away from him” warning network to try and protect themselves. This is absolutely unacceptable. Being a very eminent person in a community does not, or should not protect, you from being a sexual predator, regardless of your achievements in your own field. This man got away with it by being a scientific “rock star”, leader in the field of exoplanet discovery, and even being spoken of as a contender for a Nobel prize. The fact that the institution did nothing, despite the “common knowledge” is reprehensible. The fact that after investigating the case, they have essentially given him a slap on the wrist, told him not to do it again, and stuck their collective heads back in the sand, is also disgraceful. An email from the chair of the department, regarding the situation, which found its way to the outside world, has the utterly cringe-worthy quote:

Coutesty of Bryan Gaensler via Twitter https://twitter.com/SciBry/status/652737762903334912

The academic department is doing exactly what academic departments usually do — treat this as an external threat and reflexively defend one of their own. They are so invested in his scientific status and achievements that they cannot recognise the fact that he is a serial sexual predator, and that trumps his status within the department. The email is notable for not mentioning ANY of the women who were assaulted, and for whom the situation is so much harder than for the Professor. Victim blaming at the highest level of academia. To be honest, I was not all all surprised by the reaction from the Head of Department, but it is disgraceful, and shows how unfit to lead anything many academics actually are.

Fortunately, the rest of the Astronomy community is made of much sterner stuff, and has, as Janet Stemwedel has noted, been far more proactive in its condemnation over social media, than the institution itself. This is particularly true for the women in Astronomy. I salute you.

So we now have the situation, where this man, very powerful in terms of sitting on important committees, controlling large scientific budgets, being a NASA investigator, and highly influential has been effectively let off the hook. In fact, he has demonstrated that he is not fit to act in a supervisory or managerial role. He simply cannot be trusted to control his behaviour. I hope that the managers of the various research funds, astronomy committees and other organisations to which he is a member, will take appropriate action. Science must signal that dangerous sexual predators cannot be allowed to continue to operate within their scientific communities because they are “eminent”, or “influential”, or have made a “significant scientific contribution”. It is not acceptable.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece on why Professors should not have consensual sexual relationships with their students. I realize that I now need to update the guidelines to allow for one-sided and unwanted sexual behaviour or advances too:

1 Consensual relations are grossly unprofessional. The Professor is in a position of trust and power, and must NOT take advantage of this. We expect High School teachers to follow this rule. University Professors must do the same. Forget the “consenting adults” argument. It does not apply.

2 Unwanted sexual advances are illegal, certainly against institutional regulations, and should be grounds for dismissal.

3 There is an asymmetric power dynamic in either type of relationship, which is abusive. This is particularly true where the Professors is a mentor, degree supervisor or likely to be a significant factor in the future employment prospects of the other party.

In academia, you have got to be beyond reproach on this. An affair with a student should be verboten. Unwanted sexual advances to a colleague or student, equally so. Nothing else is good enough. It should be an offence which results in dismissal, if proven. It should be investigated by an independent person, or persons, not an internal investigation by the institution itself. This sort of thing should not be tolerated, ignored or swept under the carpet.

Institutional policies also need to be revised -in this case, only a complaint from the actual party suffering the harassment was allowed. No standing was given to complaints from third party witnesses who may have seen highly inappropriate behaviour. The institutional procedures are mostly there to protect the reputation of the institution, not to produce a just outcome.

Finally, I’d like to offer my sincere admiration for the courage of the witnesses who came forward to bring this sordid tale to light. Academia failed to give you a safe haven to work and learn, and then tried to cover this up. You deserved much better. We must all try to do better in supporting you and other witnesses. This must not be allowed to continue, and don’t be under any illusion that this is an isolated incident. It’s not, and we need to stop the “Special Snowflakes” from getting away with any more than they already have.