The most prestigious scientific organization in the US is under pressure to reverse 155 years of tradition and allow its members to be expelled for misconduct.
Today, a Change.org petition demanding that the National Academy of Sciences “revoke the honor of membership bestowed on individuals who have been sanctioned for sexual harassment, retaliation and assault” passed 1,000 signatures.
The petition, posted online a week ago, was prompted by misconduct allegations against several academy members. They include, among others, the cancer geneticist Inder Verma, who resigned this month as editor of the academy’s flagship journal after eight women accused him of sexual harassment.
Getting into the National Academy of Sciences is considered one of the highest honors in science. Established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the academy provides independent advice to the federal government, regularly publishing expert reports on issues in science and technology.
Membership has always been a lifelong honor, with no procedures for expulsion. Even a criminal conviction for child molestation has been no bar to continued membership: In 1997, the Nobel Prize winner D. Carleton Gajdusek, famed for his work on infectious neurodegenerative diseases, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a teenage boy — one of a large family of children he had fostered from Papua New Guinea and other islands across the South Pacific.
Gajdusek served a year in prison before leaving the US for Europe and remained an academy member until his death in 2008. In 2013, the academy published a sympathetic memoir from a former colleague, David Asher of the FDA, who wrote:
Carleton emphatically and repeatedly rejected our norms as prudish and vociferously defended his behavior as natural, both historically and by the more liberal standards of many other countries today. While not persuaded that his personal behavior was acceptable … I sadly came to agree with his friend Robert Gallo, who concluded simply that we should continue to be Carleton’s “friend[s] and not his judge.”
Asher told BuzzFeed News by email: “I articulated my views about Carleton Gajdusek in that article and have nothing of value to add now. I am not a member of the Academy myself and would not presume to advise members on what to do when they learn that another member has committed a crime.”
More recently, several academy members have been investigated for professional misconduct. Astronomer Geoff Marcy, for example, resigned as professor at the University of California, Berkeley, after a 2015 BuzzFeed News investigation revealed that he had violated sexual harassment policies.
Sergio Verdú, a professor of electrical engineering at Princeton University, has been accused of sexually harassing a graduate student, as reported by HuffPost. “While Dr. Verdu denies the allegations that are being made, he intends to respect the confidentiality and privacy of Princeton University and its internal process,” his lawyer, David Rabinowitz, told BuzzFeed News by email.
Columbia University neuroscientist Thomas Jessell was fired this year for “serious violations of University policies and values governing the behavior of faculty members in an academic environment.” (Jessell did not respond to a request for comment.)
And Verma, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, resigned as editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 1, just days after Science magazine revealed that eight women had accused him of sexual harassment, in incidents spanning four decades. (Verma did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News, but denied all accusations to Science, saying, “I have never used my position at the Salk Institute to take advantage of others.”)
That Science story triggered the new petition.
“Verma was the final straw,” the organizer of the online petition, neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, told BuzzFeed News.
After the #MeToo movement shook the Hollywood establishment, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, voted to expel first Harvey Weinstein and then Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski.
“Because recognition of scientific excellence has been expected to stand the test of time, when the NAS bylaws were written they did not anticipate the need to remove a member,” Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist and president of the academy, told BuzzFeed News by email.
That needs to change, according to McLaughlin. “A decision had been made that these people’s science was more important than the lives of the women whose lives they devastated,” she said.
In addition to the honor of membership, the academy has given Verdú and Jessell awards for writing reviews of research in their fields, and in 2001 gave Marcy the Henry Draper Medal, a prize awarded every four years for studies in astronomical physics.
“It certainly speaks to how tone-deaf the academy is in thinking about sexual violence and predators.”
The memoir of Gajdusek was not an unusual honor: The academy has commissioned more than 1,600 of these for deceased members. Still, McLaughlin told BuzzFeed News that she thought it was inappropriate. “It certainly speaks to how tone-deaf the academy is in thinking about sexual violence and predators,” she said.
Academy president McNutt told BuzzFeed News that the organization’s leaders are now considering whether rules on membership could be changed. “Changing the bylaws will require a vote by our roughly 2,400 members,” she said. “NAS leadership has already begun this dialogue about membership and being explicit about expectations of conduct of members.”
Next month, an expert panel convened by the academy is expected to release a report on the impacts of sexual harassment in academia. Sheila Widnall, an aerospace researcher at MIT and co-chair of the panel, told BuzzFeed News that it won’t include specific recommendations of organization policies. But she said it would urge scientific organizations to take a lead on tackling the issue.
One organization that is showing leadership, Widnall said, is the American Geophysical Union. In September 2017, it changed its ethics policy to consider harassment, bullying, and discrimination under the heading of scientific misconduct eligible for disciplinary action.
“The sanctions can range from a letter to expulsion from membership to removal of awards,” Christine McEntee, the AGU’s executive director, told BuzzFeed News. “We would do it on a case-by-case basis.”