Elite US science academy expels astronomer Geoff Marcy following harassment complaints

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Elite US science academy expels astronomer Geoff Marcy following harassment complaints

US astronomer Geoffrey Marcy during a news conference in London in 2015

Geoffrey Marcy resigned in 2015 from the University of California, Berkeley, which conducted an investigation finding him guilty of sexual harassment.Credit: Nikas Halle’n/AFP via Getty

The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has terminated astronomer Geoffrey Marcy’s membership, in light of sexual harassment complaints — the first time the respected group has expelled a member.

The action comes two years after the NAS introduced a new code of conduct that would allow the organization to expel members “for the most egregious violations … including for proven cases of sexual harassment”.

The 158-year-old academy changed its bylaws following pressure from the scientific community and after the #MeToo movement, which highlighted pervasive workplace harassment and institutional failures to prevent it. In 2018, a US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report warned that sexual harassment is widespread in academic science.

Marcy, an exoplanet researcher, resigned from his tenured position at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2015, after BuzzFeed News reported that a university investigation found he broke sexual harassment policies in several cases for nearly a decade until 2010.

Responding to his NAS expulsion, Marcy told ScienceInsider that he has been “completely outside of organized academia for over 5 years”, and that he “always supported equal opportunity and success for women in academia and science”.

“My engaging and empathic style could surely be misinterpreted, which is my fault for poor communication,” he said. “I would never intentionally hurt anyone nor cause distress.” (Marcy did not respond to Nature‘s request for comment.)

Last September, Nature reported that despite the NAS’s bylaw amendment, the organization had yet to expel any harassers, even though public reports of investigations and findings involving current members existed. NAS president Marcia McNutt told Nature at the time that the organization requires a complaint be filed before a member’s status can be adjudicated, and that no complaints had been filed.

That report prompted François-Xavier Coudert, a chemist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, to e-mail the organization and file complaints about four scientists, including Marcy, citing findings of inappropriate behavior that had been reported in the press. “I found it was ridiculous as an argument for the academy to say, ‘we have a policy, but no one is filing a complaint’,” says Coudert. When he posted about the Nature story on Twitter, McNutt had replied, urging him to take action.

“The NAS has chosen a policy that is very weak and that protects them in a way,” says Coudert.

The academy has said previously that it does not have the resources for formal investigations, outside of internal NAS business. The group relies on publicly documented investigations carried out by other organizations to begin inquiries into its members.

The NAS informed Coudert this week of Marcy’s termination, which the chemist says is a preliminary step in the right direction.

Membership to the highly selective NAS is regarded as a high honour in US science, burnishing the profile of elected members. It also confers a degree of influence — the group is regularly tapped by US agencies to offer scientific views on national affairs.

Seyda Ipek, a theoretical particle physicist at the University of California, Irvine, also submitted a complaint in September that included public details of harassment investigations and findings concerning Marcy. “It’s really important to not allow these people in these prestigious communities because they are doing bad things for science,” says Ipek. She says she was surprised and angry that scientists continued to collaborate with the astronomer, pointing out that manuscripts on the arXiv preprint server still listed Marcy as a co-author. “Where is the justice for women pushed out of the field if people continue to work with him?”

Some of those papers point to UC Berkeley as Marcy’s affiliation. A UC Berkeley spokesperson says Marcy is currently a retired professor at the university, and UC policy allows retirees to refer to themselves as emeritus faculty at those institutions. They added that the university’s announcement in 2015 of Marcy’s resignation was accurate at that time.

A spokesperson for the NAS confirmed that Marcy’s membership was rescinded as of 24 May. They did not say how many other members were under review for sexual harassment complaints.

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