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Sexual Harassment Case Shines Light On Science's Dark Secret


A sexual harassment case is sending shock waves through the scientific community this week, and raising questions nationwide about how common sexual harassment is in science and why so little is typically done to stop it.

A six-month investigation by the University of California, Berkeley concluded in June that a faculty member, renowned astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, violated multiple sexual harassment policies over the course of a decade.

Marcy has been a leader in the hunt for Earth-like planets beyond our solar system, was head of a $100 million project aimed at finding life on other planets, and has often been touted as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize.

But he resigned Wednesday after a number of faculty members and students in his department publicly released letters condemning his alleged inappropriate behavior with students, and the university's inadequate response in dealing with it.

Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, shown here at a scientific conference in 2015, resigned Wednesday from his faculty position at the University of California, Berkeley.
Stuart C. Wilson / Getty Images for Breakthrough Initiatives
Getty Images for Breakthrough Initiatives
Astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, shown here at a scientific conference in 2015, resigned Wednesday from his faculty position at the University of California, Berkeley.

Marcy hasn't responded to NPR's request for an interview. He denies some of the allegations, but he posted a public apology "for mistakes I've made" on his faculty website.

The school had kept its investigation private — even from its own faculty — until the online news outlet BuzzFeed broke the story last week.

Aside from stating that "Marcy violated campus sexual harassment policy," the university released no details about what the investigation found. But according to BuzzFeed, the report concluded that Marcy's offensive behavior included unwanted massages, kissing and groping of at least four students, from 2001 to 2010.

One of these students was Sarah Ballard, now a postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She first met Marcy a decade ago when she was an undergraduate at Berkeley. He taught her astronomy class and showed special interest in her career, she tells NPR.

"To have a really renowned scientist praise you — and praise your ability — you can imagine, was really encouraging to me," she says.

At first, she and Marcy met a few times at cafes around campus, where they talked about astronomy and her career. But sometimes, she says, the conversation became too personal. He talked about when he was young, having sex with a former girlfriend.

Then one day, Marcy gave Ballard a ride home. He parked the car by her house. "The fact that we were in the car together suddenly made me feel really uncomfortable," she says. "I think I really realized that the tenor of the mood was really wrong."

As Ballard started to get out of the car, the professor "reached over and was rubbing the back of my neck," she says. She left the car — and stopped getting together with Marcy outside of class.

Ballard says she was afraid to report Marcy. She didn't want to hurt her chances of going to graduate school. It's a common and very real conundrum for many women hoping to pursue university research careers, says Katie Hinde, a biologist at Arizona State University.

"Academia has a particular climate that allows sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual abuses to persist," Hinde tells NPR. Last year, she co-authored one of the few studies aimed at figuring out how common sexual harassment is in science.

Hinde and her colleagues surveyed roughly 500 women doing fieldwork in a range of scientific disciplines. Seventy percent of those women told the researchers they had experienced sexual harassment, often from their mentors or supervisors — "people who had power over their career, who had power over their research," Hinde says.

In science, letters of recommendation from mentors are particularly crucial to obtaining a coveted faculty position, Hinde says. When a mentor sexually harasses or assaults a woman, it backs her into a corner: She can either report the offense, and possibly hurt her career. Or she can try to ignore it.

In fact, most harassment is never reported, says Heather Metcalf, research director of the Association for Women in Science.

Women are often told to keep quiet about lewd comments, touching and leering, she says. "There is a bit of a norm for those behaviors to sort of be brushed off, rather than be taken seriously."

An incident last summer involving the prestigious journal Science shows how common this attitude is, Metcalf says. A young female scientist wrote to the journal's advice column, asking what she should do about a situation in the lab where she worked.

"She was really enjoying the scientific work she was doing, but she was feeling really uncomfortable because she kept catching her supervisor trying to take a peek down her blouse," Metcalf says.

The magazine columnist essentially advised the woman to say nothing — to turn a blind eye, Metcalf says. Science eventually retracted the column.

But the culture of keeping silent about sexual harassment continues.

In Marcy's case, it took years of complaints before the university took up its investigation. Then it disciplined him privately.

The university, which declined an interview with NPR, confirmed in a written statement that Marcy was told to follow strict behavior guidelines or "be immediately subject to sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal." This agreement was the "most certain and effective option for preventing any inappropriate future conduct," according to the statement.

Michael Eisen, a molecular biologist at Berkeley, says the school didn't go far enough.

"In essence the university convicted him," Eisen says, "and what was so stunning to me was that Marcy got, at best, something you would describe as a slap on the wrist."

By not punishing him, Eisen says, "they're all but ensuring this kind of behavior is going to continue from others. Basically they're saying there are no consequences for this type of behavior."

In the days since the news got out, many scientists have demanded consequences.

Thousands of scientists have signed an online petition supporting the women who accused Marcy of harassment. And 24 faculty members in the department of astronomy at Berkeley signed and released a letter Monday that said, in part, "We believe that Geoff Marcy cannot perform the functions of a faculty member."

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Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.