Smithsonian island outpost reeling from sexual-misconduct claims

Sexual-harassment allegations have shaken the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.Credit: Design Pics/Alamy

Accusations of sexual harassment and assault are rocking the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), a famend centre for ecological analysis based mostly on an island within the Panama Canal.

After years of open secrets and techniques and simmering rumours, the difficulty escalated final month, when 49 scientists co-signed a letter to US President Joe Biden’s administration that known as for sweeping modifications on the STRI, which is a part of the celebrated US-based Smithsonian Institution, to deal with a protracted historical past of alleged mistreatment.

The letter, dated 9 December, was addressed to the White House Gender Policy Council (GPC).

It got here on the identical day that multiple dozen scientists shared their private accounts of alleged harassment and assault in a BuzzFeed News article.

The fallout has been swift. Joshua Tewksbury, an ecologist who grew to become the director of the STRI in July 2021, tells Nature that, in 2022, the Smithsonian is prone to type a job drive to research problems with harassment and assault. The job drive will welcome enter and participation from alleged victims. “We’re reaching out to everyone named in that BuzzFeed article and inviting a dialogue,” he says. “It became clear fairly early on in my tenure that this issue was going to define our work for the foreseeable future.”

Tewksbury says the allegations and the dialogue he needs to foster are notably pertinent to field-research stations, the place scientists of assorted ages and ranges of seniority each dwell and work in shut proximity. He provides: “There’s a lot of willingness for change, and it’s a time when we can create change faster than we could before. Habits die hard, and sometimes they only die when they have to.”

An established downside

The STRI was already conscious of among the allegations. In 2020, eight girls — together with Sarah Batterman, an ecologist on the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, and the University of Leeds, UK — filed a proper grievance of sexual misconduct towards former STRI workers scientist Benjamin Turner. The full grievance has not been made public, however Batterman advised BuzzFeed that Turner harassed her repeatedly and sexually assaulted her in 2011 throughout a convention in San Francisco, California.

Turner didn’t reply to Nature’s request for touch upon the formal grievance or Batterman’s accusation of assault. He additionally didn’t reply to questions on his present affiliation. Turner beforehand held a title as a courtesy assistant professor on the University of Florida in Gainesville, however a college spokesperson says that place resulted in May 2021.

The 2020 grievance triggered an inside investigation, and Tewksbury says that the Smithsonian has severed all ties with Turner. But Batterman tells Nature that rather more must be carried out — together with implementing higher methods for reporting abuses, and taking swifter motion to guard girls on the island and elsewhere. “I’m hoping for institutional changes at the Smithsonian,” she says. “The science community as a whole needs to recognize that this is a problem.”

In April 2021, 43 STRI workers scientists signed an open letter supporting Batterman and the opposite girls who had spoken out. “We commend these women for coming forward — these are courageous acts that come at significant personal costs, acts that ultimately should help make STRI a better place,” the letter acknowledged. It known as for a collection of reforms, together with elevated transparency and accountability.

In an interview with Nature, Batterman says she has reached out to roughly three dozen girls who labored on the STRI through the years, including that about three-quarters of them say they personally skilled harassment or assault whereas working on the institute. “It’s truly sobering and awful to think about how many careers have been affected by sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Smithsonian,” she says. “Many women are no longer in science. Think of all of the discoveries that would be made and papers that would be written if women didn’t have to deal with this.”

Tewksbury says he can’t touch upon any ongoing investigations or particular personnel issues. He declines to make clear whether or not Turner give up the STRI or was dismissed, however says that, prior to now, the institute has terminated the employment contracts of people that dedicated “monumental breaches of the ethics code”.

Whether Turner left on his personal or was compelled out, it was not a clear break. “Disentangling a very active academic from the network of collaborators is a very messy process,” Tewksbury says. “The fallout is huge and complicated and ongoing.” Among different issues, the institute is attempting to recuperate knowledge that had been below Turner’s management. “We have decades-long data sets that have been essentially orphaned,” he says.

Turner will not be the one STRI scientist who has been accused of harassment. A decade in the past, Meg Crofoot, an anthropologist on the University of California, Davis, says she was harassed and romantically pursued a decade in the past by Egbert Leigh, then a workers scientist on the STRI. In a remark to Nature, Leigh confirms that he had “had a devastatingly disruptive and inappropriate crush” on Crofoot following his spouse’s dying, including: “I was not my normal self, not that this excuses anything. Dr Crofoot’s behaviour during this episode was entirely honourable.”

Crofoot says that she “reached a level of closure” with Leigh years in the past, however she thinks that points on the STRI stay. She says the time and emotional vitality that alleged victims have spent attempting to get outcomes solely provides to their trauma. “This is a huge tax on our professional productivity,” she says. For her half, Batterman estimates that she’s misplaced three years of labor out of the final decade as a direct results of mistreatment.

Necessary modifications

The STRI is dedicated to altering the best way that complaints are submitted and dealt with, Tewksbury says. In the previous, he says, individuals who wished to file a grievance didn’t all the time know one of the best ways to proceed. “You have to normalize that process.” Leigh, who has been stripped of his emeritus place on the STRI, agrees that the method for reporting misconduct must be clarified and streamlined. He provides that folks assigned to obtain the complaints “should really care about people and their problems”. He says that “punishment should be designed to correct, not avenge” and that “due process to verify guilt is essential”.

In 2020, the Smithsonian launched the SI Civil Program, a useful resource modelled on an identical initiative on the US National Institutes of Health. Anyone in any Smithsonian division can now name a hotline to report misconduct. The workplace has a civil coordinator who serves as a single level of contact.

Laura Dunn, a sufferer’s rights legal professional based mostly in Washington DC, represents Batterman, Crofoot and 12 others who say they had been harassed or assaulted on the institute. She says that girls are sometimes reluctant to accuse senior scientists of misconduct. “Some of these women were very nervous about the high-profile nature of the men they were accusing,” Dunn says. “Are they going to be retaliated against? Are they going to face defamation lawsuits?”

Dunn helped to craft the 9 December letter to the GPC; the council was arrange by Biden in March 2021. The Smithsonian receives two-thirds of its price range from the federal authorities, and, by constitution, the US vice-president sits on the administration board. The administration has acknowledged receiving the letter, however has not but publicly commented on the contents. The workplace had not responded to Nature’s request for remark by the point this text went to press.

The letter states that workers scientists on the STRI have an excessive amount of management over the work and careers of PhD college students and postdoctoral researchers. Batterman explains that, along with serving as gatekeepers for knowledge units and discipline websites, the workers scientists have traditionally determined which junior researchers would obtain fellowships. “The staff scientists have so much power that you’re beholden to them,” she says.

Tewksbury says that, in an try to blunt at the least among the energy of workers scientists, the STRI is altering how junior researchers are awarded fellowships. In the previous, workers scientists would talk about amongst themselves which researchers is likely to be worthy of fellowships and match the fellows with mentors. The new course of places extra emphasis on the potential and credentials of the trainees than on the preferences and persuasiveness of mentors, he says.

The 9 December letter requires renewed consideration to security at STRI services. It famous that, till not too long ago, many bed room doorways on the STRI didn’t have locks. The letter recounted a declare that some feminine scientists used rocks to safe their doorways. A scientist says that she was assaulted in her bed room after a male scientist pushed a rock apart. Tewksbury says that every one bedrooms now have lockable doorways, however he notes that such safeguards are impractical in discipline websites, the place researchers sleep in tents.

The dynamics of an island-based analysis institute the place folks dwell, work and socialize collectively complicates efforts to guard researchers, Tewksbury says. “Strong power imbalances, coupled with close, informal working environments, large age differentials and alcohol all increase the risk of abuses of power and sexual harassment,” he says. “The two main venues where that wicked cocktail is mixed up are field research stations and conferences.”

“It would be a mistake to say [sexual misconduct] is a problem with STRI per se,” Crofoot says. “Assault, sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions are a common thing at field stations. There’s a need for institutions to recognize that they can’t continue to ignore these problems.”


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