Harassment in academia – hit institutions where it hurts

As of writing this, Lawrence Krauss is still on the bill with Richard Dawkins for two shows in New Zealand in May as part of their Science in the Soul show.

But the chances of Krauss, the theoretical physicist and gifted science communicator, making it to New Zealand are ebbing away by the day, as he faces multiple allegations of sexual harassment raised in an in-depth Buzzfeed News investigation.

It is gob-smacking that he hasn’t already been cut from the Science in the Soul show, which Dawkins could easily carry on his own or with a suitable replacement. Plenty of Kiwi scientists could share the stage with him and do a great job.

Krauss and Dawkins are close and it will take a lot for him to cut loose an old friend. But that’s exactly what he should do and external pressure is mounting for exactly that to happen.

Krauss has already been dropped from the opening speaking slot at the PCST conference of science communicators happening in Dunedin next month.

Uninvited

Auckland University of Technology has also cancelled its sponsorship of Science in the Soul and Mikee Tucker of Loop, who brought Ben Goldacre and Neil de Grasse Tyson to New Zealand last year, is no longer involved in the event, which is a production of Australian company Think Inc.

Krauss has been uninvited from speaking and alumni events all over the place as the numerous academic institutions he is associated with distance themselves from the scientist.

Krauss and Dawkins are prolific tweeters, but their twitter feeds have remained silent on the allegations.

In an email to Buzzfeed News, Krauss described the claims against him as “false and misleading defamatory allegations”.

Krauss has the right to defend himself but there’s enough evidence outlined in the BuzzFeed News article to suggest the various institutions Krauss has been associated with over the years should have been a lot more proactive in examining the conduct of their flamboyant academic.

There’s ample evidence to suggest all of his public engagements should be put on hold for the time being.

Science has experienced its own slow moving #metoo movement over the past few years, epitomised by the case of world astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, who resigned his position at the University of California, Berkeley in 2015 following an investigation in multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

Scientific American outlines the other key sexual harassment cases involving high profile scientists.

More allegations will likely emerge as women are empowered to break their silence about the traumatic experiences of sexual harassment they have experienced.

Hit them in the pocket

The science sector in the US knows it has a major problem on its hands. Unfortunately too many of these allegations haven’t been treated seriously enough, with investigations going nowhere or the alleged offender getting away with a stern talking to. But things are changing.

Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Technology held a hearing titled, “A Review of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct in Science.”

At the hearing, Chris McEntee, the Executive Director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union, testified how the AGU had revised its ethics policy to define harassment, discrimination and bullying as “scientific misconduct”. This was something the AGU was working on before the Weinstein scandal created the #metoo movement and caused uncomfortable self-reflection across numerous industries.

At the same meeting, Rhonda Davis, head of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, explained how the NSF had set up a portal allowing students and faculty members to report claims of sexual misconduct directly to the NSF. The implication is clear. If institutions don’t do enough to prevent sexual harassment and to investigate allegations thoroughly, then funding could be pulled.

This is one way to make academic institutions serve their staff and students better.

Today, NBR reports that university law schools are scrambling to distance themselves from top law firm Russell McVeagh, which is weathering the fallout of allegations that lawyers at the firm sexually harassed and assaulted clerks interning at the firm.

New Zealand academia hasn’t had its own #metoo moment yet. But if its leaders are taking notice, they’ll be moving proactively to prevent harassment more effectively and to better deal with allegations when they arise. If they don’t, they could see the government’s purse strings tightened.

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