The American Geophysical Union (AGU) recently decided to treat harassment (including sexual harassment) as scientific misconduct. This puts harassment on par with major ethical violations in science such as data fabrication and plagiarism. Since the AGU has adopted this into their ethical guidelines, members who are found guilty of harassment can be subject to such penalties as being banned from presenting at conferences and being forbidden from publishing in AGU journals. For scientists trying to advance (or simply maintain) their professional careers, these punishments can have serious consequences—thus they have real teeth.
This decision was motivated by the fact that the echelons of science (like everywhere else) includes people who misuse their status, power and authority to harass those beneath them. As should be expected, some of the harassment is sexual in nature and is directed by men at women. Almost three quarters of women have reported being harassed in the field and over a quarter have reported being sexually assaulted. While some might doubt the exact numbers, such levels of misbehavior are quite consistent with the stories that are known to almost everyone in higher education.
While there are a variety of reasons that women are a small minority in the sciences, the harassment and misogyny are clearly factors. Philosophy, as an academic field, all to often suffers from such problems, so I see no reason to doubt that the sciences are any different. I have also heard, anecdotally, stories from colleagues in the sciences. Such bad behavior is unethical on the face of it and is made even worse when one considers the harmful consequences not only to the women harmed, but to the endeavor of science itself. Laying aside the moral concerns, sexual assault is a crime and sexual harassment in the workplace is generally against the law. As such, there are excellent reasons to combat harassment in the sciences.
One area of concern is parallel to that of how academic institutions handle sexual harassment. Scientific organizations, like universities, do have some power over their members. However, they are imbued with the power of the state: they cannot conduct criminal investigators on their own, nor can they conduct criminal trials. As such, it can be argued that the criminal offenses should be left to the police (who, it must be said, do not always handle them well). The scientific organization or university can then impose penalties on those who are convicted of crimes.
One problem with this approach is that there is misconduct that falls short of a crime that still merits punishment. For example, academic misconduct is not a crime, but should have consequences. As such, it can be argued that organizations should also conduct their own investigations and trials to address such incidents. This raises the concern that these organizations are likely (as has been shown in the case of universities) to conduct their investigations unfairly. That is, either acting to protect their reputation at the expense of victims or victimizing the accused to create the appearance that they are taking the matter seriously. While this is a reasonable concern, it is not telling against having organizations engage in policing the relevant behavior of their members. Rather, it is concern about the integrity of the organizations in this regulation. Thus, the practical and moral concern is to ensure that the process is fair.
Another point of concern is classifying such harassment in the sciences as scientific misconduct. Harassment, sexual or otherwise, is clearly misconduct, unprofessional and wrong—even it does not each the level of a crime. It is certainly harmful to scientists and science, but it can be argued that while it is misconduct, it is not scientific misconduct simply because it happens in the sciences. One obvious way to argue for this is to consider the matter of academic misconduct.
At a university, there are certain actions (such as plagiarism) that count as academic misconduct. There are also actions, such as sexual harassment, that are misconduct, but not academic misconduct. To illustrate, if a student plagiarizes a paper, then they have committed academic misconduct. If a student sexually harasses their fellow students in class, they are engaged in misconduct in an academic setting, but it is not academic misconduct. Even if their misdeeds harm the academic performance of their fellow students. This is because the sexual harassment is not academic in nature; it just takes place in an academic setting. To illustrate, I can fail a student for plagiarizing a paper—since that is relevant to their academic performance. I cannot justly fail a student for sexual harassment—that behavior is irrelevant to their grade. I can, obviously, contact the campus authorities about the student’s behavior and have them removed from the class.
In the case of sexual harassment in the field, lab or other scientific setting, this is clearly misconduct. However, it does not seem to be misconduct of a scientific nature. Rather, it is misconduct that takes place in a scientific setting. To say that a scientist who harasses is thus engaged in bad science would be an error—they are behaving badly and being unprofessional, but that is distinct from their scientific activities. This is analogous to a student who does the academic work properly but engages in terrible behavior towards fellow students. As another point, if a scientist committed murder, that would not be regarded as scientific misconduct—even if they murdered another scientist. It would be murder. Likewise, harassment is not an abuse of science, but an abuse of people.
While some might be outraged at this view, I am not claiming that scientists should thus be free to harass because that behavior is not scientific misconduct. I would no more claim this than I would claim that students should be allowed to assault fellow students because doing so would not be academic misconduct. Rather, there should be penalties for both.
Scientists who engage in harassment within their field should face the relevant legal and professional consequences. In terms of professional consequences, an organization could impose the same penalties that the AGU does—a scientist who violates professional ethics by engaging in harassment could be excluded from presenting at conferences and publishing; just as a student who does not engage in academic misconduct but engages in harassment or assault can be expelled from a school.