The National Academy of Sciences moved this week toward a landmark shift in policy that would allow it for the first time to eject members who have violated its code of conduct, including in cases of sexual harassment.
The group’s members, who include some of the world’s most prominent scientists, are elected to lifetime positions, and currently they can only be asked to depart.
But as the science world moves to address gender imbalances, discrimination and sexual harassment against women in historically male-dominated fields, the academy has faced pressure to change its membership rules.
In a preliminary vote on Tuesday at the group’s annual meeting in Washington, members approved an amendment to the organization’s bylaws that would give it the power to remove any scientist who engages in sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying or other activities as defined in a new Code of Conduct.
A final vote by the academy’s full membership of about 2,000 scientists is expected by mid-June.
“Some members have been asked to resign before, but we never had the capability to force the member to resign,” Marcia McNutt, the president of the academy, said in an interview on Thursday.
Controversies involving academy members and other scientists have engulfed numerous laboratories, lecture halls and conferences in recent years.
In 2015, Geoffrey W. Marcy, an acclaimed astronomer, resigned from the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley after he was found guilty in a campus investigation of sexually harassing students.
In 2018, Columbia University removed a top neuroscientist, Thomas Jessell, from his posts after an internal investigation uncovered violations of “university policies and values.”
As The New York Times has reported, studies have documented biases that favor male scientists in hiring, salary, start-up funds, credit for authorship, invitations to give talks at prestigious university seminars and invitations to speak on conference panels (a.k.a. “manels”).
Some argue that changes need to take root in the institutions that support scientists in the United States, where female scientists hold only about 30 percent of senior faculty positions. In October, the National Science Foundation started to require institutions to notify it if a scientist working on a project using the foundation’s funds was found to have harassed someone.
The vote at the National Academy of Sciences was a similar effort, Dr. McNutt said. The group’s umbrella organization, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, had commissioned a study on gender issues just before the accusations against Harvey Weinstein became public in 2017 and propelled the #MeToo movement era into the center of the national conversation, she said.
Marcia McNutt, the president of the academy, in 2018. “Putting the power and prestige of the Academy behind this — and other issues of scientific misconduct — is hugely important,” she wrote in an email.CreditPaul R. Kennedy
“The problem of sexual harassment spread from not just the entertainment industry and politics but also into science,” Dr. McNutt said. “We heard the names of a number of prominent scientists that were being put into the news, but the academy decided it needed to wait until this report came out.”
In June 2018, the National Academies released the results of that gender study, its first on the issue. It concluded that years of efforts to prevent sexual harassment in science, engineering and medicine had failed, and recommended that universities and legislators make sweeping changes in how they respond to allegations of harassment.
The issue was a sensitive one for the National Academies because some of its members had been found to have sexually harassed people at their universities.
“It basically said we needed to address sexual harassment as seriously as other forms of academic misconduct, such as plagiarism,” she said.
In August 2018, the National Academy of Sciences started to draft its Code of Conduct, and this week’s vote on the bylaws was a way to enforce it, Dr. McNutt said. “The academy felt we have to practice what we preach,” she said.
About 95 percent of those voting were in favor, she said, while the others were worried about the process by which suspected violations would be adjudicated. Dr. McNutt said the process was still being “refined,” but could include cases in which universities have taken action, or in which scientists are fired or there is public documentation about misdeeds.
“Then we would decide whether it is relevant,” she said. “We would decide what sort of punishment seems reasonable, given the severity of the offense.”
Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who in 1994 measured laboratory space for a report on gender discrimination that drew national attention, said the academy’s move was an “excellent idea.”
“Putting the power and prestige of the Academy behind this — and other issues of scientific misconduct — is hugely important,” she wrote on Thursday in an email. “It won’t solve this problem but it is a critical component of the solution — as we continue to advance solutions to these issues for the good of science.”
On social media, reaction from women in sciences to the vote was swift, with some saying that such a move was long overdue.
(The Times reported on Daniel Carleton Gajdusek’s sentencing in 1997 for abusing a boy.)
The academy has taken other steps to try to address recurring problems in its more than 150-year history. This week, it announced that it had elected 100 new members, 40 of them women, the most elected in any one year to date.
Dr. McNutt said that about 18 percent of the academy’s members were women but that they made up about half of its governing council.
“It is wrong to say that it is a male-dominated organization,” she added, “because the voices of the women are well respected.”