Petition Asks National Academy of Sciences to Boot Sexual Harassers

The organization says election to the NAS is for life.

By Shawna Williams | May 4, 2018

A painting at the National Academy of Sciences depicts Abraham Lincoln signing the organization’s charter.FLICKR, EP_JHUAn online petition calling on the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to revoke memberships bestowed on people sanctioned for sexual harassment has garnered more than 250 signatures since it was posted on Wednesday (May 1). Published in the wake of the organization’s national meeting, which ended on Tuesday, the petition states: “By removing these individuals from the NAS community, we can begin to repair [any] damage done by these individuals, restore the NAS community to a place of prestige and acknowledge we can and will move forward with a commitment to providing environments that foster scientific discovery.”

In a statement to The Scientist in response to the petition, NAS spokesperson William Kearney writes, “The National Academy of Sciences is extremely sensitive to the seriousness of the issue of gender and sexual harassment. . . . While we never condone sexual harassment, there are no provisions in the NAS bylaws to rescind membership for any reason; election is for life.” 

The NAS is a nonprofit charged with advising the US government on scientific matters; it also publishes the journal PNAS. Membership in the organization is considered a high honor for researchers, with no more than 84 new members elected each year.

According to a blog post by an author who goes by the screen name “Fighty Squirrel,” and whose biographical details match those of BethAnn McLaughlin, a Vanderbilt University neuroscientist who started the petition, “The National Academy of Sciences held their annual meeting this week . . . one thing was notably absent—a discussion of what to do about two of NAS’ most well recognized members—neuroscientist Tom Jessel and cancer geneticist Inder Verma.”

The petition comes as other organizations move to exact professional consequences on individuals who have engaged in sexual harassment or assault.

Jessell was removed from his posts at Columbia University and HHMI in March. While the exact reason for his dismissal has not been disclosed, a student newspaper reports that he had engaged in a relationship with a member of his lab. Verma was placed on leave from the Salk Institute last month as an investigation looks into allegations of sexual harassment stretching back decades. His resignation as editor-in-chief of PNAS was announced Wednesday.

The petition comes as other organizations move to exact professional consequences on individuals who have engaged in sexual harassment or assault. Yesterday, for example, the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which awards the Oscars) announced it was expelling Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski. The US National Science Foundation and the U.K.’s Wellcome Trust now require institutions to inform them if grantees have been disciplined for harassment.

A tweet from an account that appears to be McLaughlin’s reads, “The National Academy of Sciences was founded to be the best of US science. They harbor men who [are] guilty of harassment. This is a blight on science and a terrible message to trainees.” McLaughlin did not respond to requests for comment as of the publication of this article.

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Avatar of: dmarciani


Posts: 68

May 5, 2018

It will be interesting to learn what the National Academy of Sciences did with Carleton Gajdusek, after he was convicted of child molestation. Also, it would be a positive move if its members are elected because of tangible scientific achievements and not due to popularity or promoting science.

May 7, 2018

 As a female scientist (now retired) who has somehow (perhaps miraculously?) escaped ever having been personally sexually harrassed by anyone (perhaps I was simply unattractive to men other than my current and ex husbands, which if so would be perfectly okay by me), I must scratch my head over this one.  I have been aware, on more than one occasion, of specific male scientists who harassed women in my scientific field. In most of these instances, the reputation of the harasser as a womanizer was reasonably well known in the community,  In only one instance, however, would I dare say that I suspected the harasser was also unworthy of what was at the time his excellent scientific reputation (and I later learned that my suspicions in that regard were shared by others).

I mention this because the National Academy of Sciences exists for a very specific purpose, which is related to Science, not morality. It's not at all clear to me whether or not "harassment" per se should be a criterion for election to the Academy. Does a history of harassment, or sexual predation, directly affect the individual's ability to provide good service in the context of scientific advice? Should the Academy take on the role of "moral police" in the scientific community?  On the other hand, should there be some way to protect women from predation by  famous scientists, and if so, should the Academy take on that responsibility?

This is not a cut-and-dried issue. Quite the contrary, the thing is quite complex.




Avatar of: TriciaMacKenzie


Posts: 2

Replied to a comment from RetiredInBoyntonBeach made on May 7, 2018

May 16, 2018

You were never harassed because you were COMPLICIT.

You say you knew of multiple male scientists who sexually harassed women, yet you did nothing???

The reason why men got away with this for so long is because you were willing to watch other women get harassed and loudly proclaim sexism in science doesn't exist. You moved up the ladder by stepping on the hands of those below you.

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