Leaders of one of the nation’s most prominent scientific groups are calling for the research community to “act with urgency” to address sexual and gender-based harassment in the field.

“It’s time for systemic change,” three leaders of the American Association for the Advancement of Science wrote in an editorial published Thursday in Science.

The editorial — penned by AAAS president Dr. Margaret Hamburg, chair of the board Susan Hockfield, and president-elect Steven Chu — follows on the heels of a new policy on harassment adopted by the organization last weekend. That policy allows the organization to revoke the membership of elected fellows in cases of proven scientific misconduct or serious breaches of professional ethics. The policy also makes it clear: Sexual and gender-based harassment violate those standards and are grounds for removal.

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“Sexual harassment is pervasive in our society, but also very much so within our scientific community,” Hamburg said in an interview with STAT.

And on Wednesday, the National Science Foundation finalized a new policy that requires organizations that receive funding from the agency report any findings and determinations of sexual harassment. The NSF said such findings could spur a range of actions, including substituting or removing principal investigators, cutting funding levels, or even terminating awards altogether.

The policies come as scientific organizations grapple with how to address widespread harassment in the community, from academic and industry labs to field stations. A landmark report issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in June found that sexual harassment takes a significant toll on women in academic science and medicine — and there’s no evidence that current rules are significantly helping to stem the issue.

The report found that sexual harassment in academia is significantly more common among engineering and medical students than students in non-STEM fields. In one survey, nearly half of female medical students said they had been harassed by faculty or staff. And about 20 percent of female science students and 25 percent of female engineering students, both undergraduate and graduate, said they had been sexually harassed by faculty or staff, according to survey of students commissioned by the report’s authors.

Megan Thielking/STAT Source: Consultant Report on the University of Texas System Campus Climate Survey.

“This is not a new problem. But we are really at a point where we recognize and have a responsibility to respond to the toll that this issue is taking,” Hamburg said. She called sexual harassment “chronic and corrosive” and noted it has had a devastating impact on not only individual targets of harassment, but also the broader scientific enterprise.

“AAAS has raised the bar. … That’s a message to all other scientific societies,” said Anne Jefferson, a geologist at Kent State University who co-authored an letter published earlier this month in Science asking the organization to adopt a policy on sexual harassment.

Hamburg said she wants to use the influence AAAS has to push other scientific organizations and institutions, big and small, to enact policies on harassment. She said the organization and scores of other scientific professional societies will meet next month to discuss policies and programs that address the issue.

“This is not a new problem. But we are really at a point where we recognize and have a responsibility to respond to the toll that this issue is taking.”

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, AAAS president

While encouraged by the policy, Jefferson also said she’d like to see it extended to cover more honors issued by AAAS. She and her co-authors were all fellows of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science, and Jefferson said she’d like to see the policy extended to members of that program and other fellows, not just elected members of AAAS.

“Honors matter,” Jefferson said. “They send a message about what the scientific community values and who the scientific community values.”

There’s also still a question of how the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies that fund scientific research might do more to address the issue.

In an online statement this week, NIH Director Francs Collins called sexual harassment “morally indefensible” and “a major obstacle that is keeping women from achieving the rightful place in science.”

But he also acknowledged the agency needs to be more transparent about how it handles sexual harassment both internally and at institutions funded by the agency. He noted that the issue of stripping scientists who sexually harass others of NIH funding is “complex,” because the agency funds institutions and not individuals.

Collins said the agency will soon roll out an updated policy on harassment and a new process for managing harassment reports. The agency also plans to survey its own staff about harassment and aims to encourage the institutions it funds to similarly take stock of their workplace climate.

And, Hamburg noted, policies are really just the first step.

“We also need to really work on what may be a much harder problem,” she said, “which is how to change the culture of science.”

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