The Year in #MeToo
The Year in #MeToo

The Year in #MeToo

2018 brought new revelations of sexual misconduct by high-profile scientists, as well as policy changes from funders and professional societies aimed at curbing bad behavior.

Dec 27, 2018
Shawna Williams
ABOVE: Activists say it's time's up for sexual harassment.
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This year, as the #MeToo movement led to more allegations of wrongdoing—and, in some cases, investigations and punishments—directed at men in entertainment, politics, the media, and other sectors, new stories of sexual harassment and assault also rocked the life sciences. At the same time, advocates and institutions took strides toward changing science’s culture and rewards systems to stamp out such behavior.

Beginning in the spring, activists starting using petitions to target institutions they saw as failing to withdraw honors or funding from scientists found to have engaged in bad behavior, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the National Institutes of Health. AAAS later announced it had adopted a policy that allows revoking the status of fellows “in cases of proven scientific misconduct, serious breaches of professional ethics, or when the Fellow in the view of AAAS no longer merits the status of Fellow.” 

In February and May, the US National Science Foundation and the UK’s Wellcome Trust, respectively, announced that grantee institutions must inform them if a funded principal investigator is found to have engaged in harassment.

Yet throughout the year, stories continued to emerge publicly of life scientists committing acts of sexual misconduct, including:

• geneticist Francisco Ayala of the University of California, Irvine, who resigned after a university investigation found he had sexually harassed colleagues and a student. In addition to being one of the institution’s most well-known faculty members, Ayala had donated millions of dollars to the school and had buildings, scholarships, and endowed chairs named after him.

• the University of Rochester’s Florian Jaeger, who remains a professor of brain sciences at the institution after an investigation found he had not touched people without their consent. His case has, however, prompted a lawsuit against the institution and several resignations, including that of the university’s president.

Thomas Jessell, a neuroscientist who was removed from his posts at Columbia University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for unspecified “serious violations of University policies and values,” according to a statement from Columbia. A student newspaper reported that Jessell had engaged in a relationship with a member of his lab.

William Kelley, Paul Whalen, and Todd Heatherton, three psychology and brain sciences professors who resigned or retired from Dartmouth College after an investigation into multiple women’s allegations that the scientists had groped, verbally harassed, or raped them. Seven women have since filed a lawsuit against the college for allegedly allowing a toxic culture to form.

• Yale School of Medicine professor Michael Simons, who received an endowed chair four years after being found guilty in a university investigation into whether he had sexually harassed a postdoc and then treated her husband, a physician at Yale, unfairly. After faculty members and others protested the awarding of the chair, the university revoked it, reportedly prompting Simons to sue Yale.

• Vanderbilt University neuroscientist David Sweatt, who reportedly is on leave as his university investigates a charge that he drugged and sexually assaulted a student at a conference.

• cancer researcher Inder Verma, who lost his posts as a faculty member at the Salk Institute and as editor-in-chief of PNAS after an investigation into eight women’s allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

Richard Vogt, who provoked a storm of criticism on Twitter and elsewhere after he gave an acceptance speech for a Distinguished Herpetologist Award that included slides of photos of students in swimwear conducting fieldwork. The Herpetologists’ League revoked the honor just a day after awarding it.