Christine Ray, GSA Science Policy Fellow

On 1 Nov. 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) hosted a roundtable discussion on preventing harassment in isolated scientific research environments. This virtual roundtable was held just a few weeks after the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Science Board announced new harassment prevention efforts at their U.S. Antarctic Program sites, responding to a report that found sexual harassment and assault incidents to be rampant at those facilities. In the geosciences in particular, fieldwork and field trips in remote locations such as the Antarctic are common career-development opportunities for young researchers—but with these opportunities come new threats and challenges to preventing and addressing harassment. In this discussion, a panel of six women scientists from a range of STEM fields and career stages weighed in on how to combat these unique issues.

Dr. Gretchen Goldman
Dr. Asmeret Berhe

Opening remarks by two of the panel hosts—Dr. Gretchen Goldman, the Assistant Director for Environmental Science, Engineering, Policy, and Justice at the OSTP, and Dr. Asmeret Berhe, the Director of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy—stressed the barrier to entry that harassment poses in STEM fields, disproportionately affecting minority groups. Dr. Berhe quickly pointed out that, while the discussion may address problems unique to remote research facilities and field camps, any environment in which a person doesn’t feel supported can be isolating; thus, many of the take-home messages that emerged are applicable to research environments everywhere, from university labs to research ship cruises.

During the main panel discussion, each panelist summarized her own experience with harassment, either personal or at her institution, and offered thoughts on both addressing incidents and preventing them altogether. Dr. Ellen Stofan, Under Secretary for Science and Research at the Smithsonian, stressed the importance of accountability: not just holding offenders accountable for their actions, but holding organization leadership accountable for making changes. The Smithsonian, which Dr. Stofan offered up as an example, has been using regular surveys and interviews with employees to track how work culture is changing with new policies, and to determine whether leadership has been effectively enforcing these policies.

Dr. Roberta Marinelli, the Director of the Office of Polar Programs at NSF, discussed the many forms that harassment can take and the systems that enable it. While criminal activities such as coercion and assault may get the most media attention, Dr. Marinelli explained that these are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the more subtle forms of harassment—microaggressions, bullying, and objectification—that are more predominant, harder to identify and address, and just as isolating and exclusionary for victims. She also broke down the overarching issue of harassment into four root causes: (1) male-dominated work environments, with men in positions of authority; (2) organizational tolerance for harassment; (3) hierarchical power structures, especially in mentoring; and (4) isolating research environments.

The third point—the imbalance of power—was one that all of the panelists agreed upon, emphasizing the need to diffuse power in research groups. “We don’t need heroes,” said Dr. Amelia Shevenell, a Professor of Geological Oceanography at the University of Southern Florida, referencing an article about science’s “hero model” published in Issues in Science and Technology in 2021. Rather than have one lead researcher—the “hero”—hold the sole power position in the group, shifting these structures to teams with multiple leaders and multiple mentors could dismantle the power imbalances that enable harassers and silence victims.

Dr. Shevenell, who detailed her own experiences with harassment on Antarctic ship cruises, also stressed the professional and mental tolls that reporting harassment can take. In her case, the research was funded through NSF, but the offender was university faculty, and while NSF tried to strengthen their own code of conduct for awardees, they ultimately held little power over her harasser. The formal complaint and investigation process at the university, which consumed three years of Dr. Shevenell’s life, was anything but anonymous, and her harasser contacted her repeatedly during that period with no repercussions. Dr. Tana Wood, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service, echoed Dr. Shevenell’s concerns, citing the long investigation timelines and repeated contact with the harasser after reporting as the most emotionally taxing parts of her personal experience with reporting, too.

Besides offering anonymous reporting options, shortening investigation and outcome timelines, and ensuring that the burden of reporting does not fall on the victim (e.g., by not forcing those who come forward to fend off contact from the harasser themselves and/or repeatedly explain to others why they no longer want to work with someone, or by moving the perpetrator to a different job/location instead of the victim), the panel also emphasized the need to make reporting procedures more clear and visible, especially in isolated environments outside the university. “Most students doing fieldwork did not know what to do if they encountered harassment or assault,” said Dr. Erika Marín-Spiotta, a Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin Madison who has led research efforts to study work climate and career barriers in the geosciences. She referenced surveys of harassment in programs with large field components, stating that those with “clearly identified, communicated, and enforced rules with consequences” led to more positive experiences for participants.

One way to ensure that these anti-harassment policies and reporting procedures are more visible is to require mandatory training for participants and group leaders. Training was also a cross-cutting theme in the final report of a workshop co-led by Dr. Kristen Yarincik, the Executive Director at Integrated Ocean Observing System Association. The report, which included 52 recommendations for research institutions and funding agencies to improve inclusivity and harassment response, underscored the need not only for anti-harassment training to be required, but to be engaging and require active participation—“not just something people have on in the background,” stressed Dr. Yarincik. Bystander intervention training, which teaches those who witness harassment without being directly involved how to step in, was also a common recommendation across the entire panel. Witnesses—especially male colleagues and others in more powerful positions—need to feel responsible for incidents that occur in their workplace, and bystander training can give them the tools they need to step in and help others. The panel agreed that anti-harassment policies must also include explicit language about bullying and other under-the-radar behaviors like those that Dr. Marinelli mentioned in her opening remarks. “I’ve only encountered one good training that made it clear what was acceptable and what was not, and why,” said Dr. Marinelli. “It’s a difficult issue that’s wrapped up in free speech—you can say lots of things that aren’t criminal, but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate.”