Astronomy Field Reeling After Sexual Harassment Scandal
Now that Geoff Marcy has resigned from his position at Berkeley, astronomers are grappling with what comes next.
The news that famous astronomer Geoff Marcy sexually harassed students over many years has sent shock waves through his field.
On Wednesday, Marcy’s employer, the University of California, Berkeley, confirmed that he had resigned from his position, after BuzzFeed News reported that he had violated the school’s sexual harassment policies in several cases between 2001 and 2010.
Marcy is leaving behind a storied career and public persona, not to mention nearly $900,000 in federal grants, $100 million in a private research effort to find “civilizations beyond Earth,” and two graduate students.
Marcy studied exoplanets, the planets that orbit stars outside of our own system. More than 1,000 have been discovered in the past few years, and a few could, just maybe, harbor life. Once considered fringe, the exoplanet field is now frequently touted as a contender for a Nobel prize. And Marcy was a leading figure in that transformation.
One of Marcy's former collaborators, Gregory Laughlin of the University of California, Santa Cruz, told BuzzFeed News that he was devastated by the news — and especially concerned about the young women Marcy harassed.
“It’s something that really, really shakes everybody to the core,” Laughlin said. “It’s the matter of the greatest urgency to make the right choices going forward and not just cover up what’s happened.”
Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, said that he hopes the incident brings attention to inappropriate behavior by other powerful scientists.
“When I go to the kitchen and see a mouse or a cockroach, I get alarmed because there must be many more out there,” Loeb told BuzzFeed News. “The most important effect is to alert other people that this is unacceptable, and people will think twice before doing anything like this.”
The scandal also underscores the lack of women and minorities in the field. Just 34% of graduate students in astronomy and 14% of full professors are women, according to a 2013 survey.
“I think the big picture is we have to work to improve diversity in recruitment,” Loeb said.
In the late 1980s, when Marcy started trying to detect the signals of planets circling other stars, most colleagues thought it was a fool’s errand.
His method was based on the law of gravity, through which an orbiting planet should impart a slight wobble to its parent star. Marcy, then at San Francisco State University, and his graduate student Paul Butler set out to detect those wobbles by looking for subtle changes in the wavelength of light coming from the stars.
The pair were scooped to the first discovery of an exoplanet circling a Sun-like star. In 1995, that prize went to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland. But in the years that followed, Marcy’s team powered ahead, and by 2002 had discovered at least 70 out of the first 100 exoplanets.
More recently, Marcy has been a member of the science team for NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which has found 1,030 confirmed planets. In 2012, he received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, and this past July, he was part of the much-publicized debut of Breakthrough Listen, a 10-year, $100 million private effort to search for intelligent life. On Monday of this week, Marcy formally resigned from that project.
“Geoff Marcy’s resignation from all of his professional activities is like a death in the community,” Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science at MIT, told BuzzFeed News by email. “He was a valued colleague and I was unaware of the 'dark side'."
Seager also said that she and others have contacted Marcy’s students and "offered to host them for a short term visit (if they need to get away) or help them transfer to another school with a suitable advisor."
According to a search at Research.gov, Marcy is the principal investigator (PI) on two current NASA grants to support the discovery of exoplanets. One, for $465,997 over three years, is due to end in April next year; the second, worth $380,028, expires next September.
NASA awards grants to institutions, not individuals, the agency told BuzzFeed News by email.
“We expect all organizations working with NASA to adhere to federal and state laws, and it is up to the university to determine a replacement if the original PI is not available,” the agency said. “NASA does not tolerate sexual harassment, and nor should any organization seriously committed to workplace equality, diversity and inclusion.”
In July, Marcy was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation, of which he has collected $31,636. Berkeley has not responded to requests for comment on what will happen to these grants now that Marcy has stepped down.
Despite Marcy’s accolades, some members of the astronomy community think the field will do fine without him.
“The media liked this ‘brilliant man’ approach to science,” said Meg Urry, the president of the American Astronomical Society. “But the real world of science is lots and lots of people working on lots and lots of ideas, with many clever ideas coming from many places. I’m not the least bit worried about the exoplanet community.”
"There are several men in very comfortable senior positions in the field who might be quaking in their boots seeing this," exoplanet researcher Margaret Turnbull told BuzzFeed News. "I don’t think Geoff’s departure will cause the field to stagnate — whatever his crimes were, it’s undeniable he laid the groundwork so well, it’ll be OK."