#TakeBackScience: A call for scientific societies to prioritize the safety of their members

One of my first experiences with inappropriate behavior at a conference was when I was 22, fresh out of undergrad and about to start a PhD program. A scientist twice my age put his hands on me without my consent in a room full of other scientists, without fear of repercussions. At the time I didn’t know who to tell or what to do, so I said and did nothing. This experience, and others, made me wary of conferences in general, and I began to attend them less and less.

Though I felt alone after it happened, my experience is hardly unique in science, or academia in general. Numerous people have shared with me their stories of being verbally harassed or physically assaulted at conferences. In reality, scientific meetings provide ideal hunting grounds for sexual predators because of the many social gatherings and limited oversight. Predators are afforded the opportunity to prey on young scientists from different institutions who have, historically, had no way of seeking justice or any protections from additional inappropriate encounters. Only recently, and primarily due to public outrage, scientific societies have begun drafting codes of conduct. While some societies have chosen to take strong stances against sexual harassment and assault (like the American Geophysical Union) others have chosen a weaker approach, protecting their members in theory but not in practice.

When Miguel Pinto returned to the Smithsonian in 2014, he had already assaulted a minimum of five women, two of whom were assaulted at American Society of Mammalogists (ASM) meetings. Angie (@AngieNMNH), one of the women who Pinto assaulted, has worked tirelessly for years to try and get him banned from ASM meetings; but, despite admitting to sexual assault in public record, he is still free to attend. Additionally, Pinto was awarded three prestigious fellowships by the society and is featured prominently on their website to this date.

The t-shirt design by Madhvi Venkatraman is a play on the ASM 2019 logo.

With the ASM centennial celebration coming up in DC this year, we decided it would be an important time to remind the society that their code of conduct still needs significant improvement. And since the Smithsonian is one of the local hosts, we want to make sure they won’t be bringing a sexual predator back to our institution, as well.

But this is about more than one predator and one society. This is a trend, this is the norm. It’s time to break the cycle.

#TakeBackScience was born out of a deep frustration with the status quo. We were inspired by the incredible people sharing their stories as part of the #MeTooSTEM movement.

Conferences are where we interact with the larger scientific community-where we seek out collaborators, learn about new research, and share our own work with others. By allowing these spaces to devolve into refuges for sexual predators, scientific societies are depriving us of equal opportunity to showcase our research and foster collaboration. Societies need to strengthen their codes of conduct and make conferences harassment-free zones where scientists of all genders, races, ethnicities, and sexualities can freely exchange ideas without fear of harassment, assault, or retaliation.  

We need to do better for the next generation of scientists, and the scientists who have already been hurt by the societies’ inattention or refusal to address what many have long known is a persistent and pervasive problem.

What we’re asking for

As part of the #TakeBackScience campaign we are asking scientific societies to:

  • Apologize to their members for their failure to protect us so far
  • Strengthen their codes of conduct
  • Ban known sexual predators from their meetings
  • Revoke awards given to known sexual predators

Who are we?

We are a group of early-career scientists who are just trying to make conferences safer for everybody. Please feel free to reach out to us - @Evobabble, @LillyDParker, @Batgirl_Susan, @AngieNMNH, @NancyRotzel, @MirianTsuchiya, @Mekisus

Join us!

We will be wearing black every Wednesday until June 26th, 2019. Check out our social media toolkit. If you would like a take back science t-shirt you can buy one here. They are all sold at cost.

Madhvi Venkatraman
Madhvi Venkatraman

Madhvi Venkatraman is a PhD Student in Washington, DC. When she’s not desperately trying to finish her PhD you can find her painting, reading, boxing, or yelling at the supreme court. You can contact her at madhvi.v@gmail.com.

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