The National Academy of Sciences is the most prestigious body of scientists in the US and being elected to membership is highly prized. So it becomes news when for the first time in its history a member was expelled for misconduct violations, as was the case a few days ago with astronomer Geoffrey Marcy for a pattern of sexual harassment.
The action is the first since the 158-year-old NAS revised its bylaws 2 years ago to allow members to be expelled for documented misconduct violations. No actions were taken on the policy until fall 2020, when, after reading news accounts, a French scientist filed a complaint against Marcy and three other NAS members who had been investigated for sexual harassment.
The email from NAS informed members that Marcy’s membership had been rescinded, effective 24 May, for violating its harassment policy. The NAS press office confirmed the academy’s action in an email to ScienceInsider, noting that the council’s vote met the required two-thirds majority.
In 2015, Marcy was forced out the University of California (UC), Berkeley, after BuzzFeed reported that a university investigation had found him guilty of sexual harassment, including kissing and groping students. He is now with Space Laser Awareness, a nonprofit in Santa Rosa, California, and is a co-author on preprints recently posted to arXiv.
“I have always supported equal opportunity and success for women in academia and science,” Marcy wrote to ScienceInsider in an email. “My engaging and empathic style could surely be misinterpreted, which is my fault for poor communication. I would never intentionally hurt anyone nor cause distress.” As for his removal from NAS, Marcy says: “I have been completely out of organized academia for over 5 years.”
His defense that “kissing and groping” students is due to a “misinterpretation” about his “engaging and empathic style” that is due to “miscommunication” is so absurd on its face that one wonders how anyone could make such a claim.
Unfortunately abuse of various kinds go on in academia all the time. The basic problem is that the research supervisors of doctoral and postdoctoral students wield enormous power over their future careers. The supervisors can give the students a big leg up as they start their careers by writing glowing letters of recommendation and using their contacts to find good placements, or they can completely destroy their chances by writing weak letters and bad-mouthing them privately to their colleagues. (My research supervisor was enormously helpful to me for many years, long after I received my doctorate and was no longer working under his supervision.)
This power imbalance is baked into the system and is unlikely to change but institutions are becoming increasingly sensitive to the opportunities that exist for abuse and the need to take steps to monitor and prevent it and to publicly reprimand those who do commit abuses so as to discourage others.
The NAS action is a welcome step in this direction.