As Allegations of Sexual Harassment in the Sciences Continue, New Rules Aim to Address It


Famed physicist Lawrence Krauss was placed on paid administrative leave from his post at Arizona State University this week in response to a long history of allegations of sexual harassment. The school has said Krauss is barred from campus while it reviews the claims, which, according to an investigation by BuzzFeed News, go back more than a decade. Krauss also resigned from his board position at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, though he denies the allegations against him.

Lawrence Krauss has been put on paid administrative leave from ASU during an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment.

Visual: Kevin Friery/Flickr

The news comes just one day after the National Science Foundation, a major federal funder of university research, published new reporting requirements for sexual harassment. The agency’s notice, published in the Federal Register on Monday, proposes two new requirements to bolster a set of measures it announced in February.

According to the reporting document, which included a call for public comment, grant-receiving institutions would be required to inform the NSF if they determine that the scientists leading a project have committed sexual harassment. Institutions would also be required to inform the agency if they put the principal investigator or co-principal investigator of an NSF-funded project on administrative leave, even if an investigation is ongoing.

But the new rules still leave much up in the air, as they only deal with informing the agency and don’t require that a PI be removed from their project. Universities are also not required to tell the agency when they open sexual harassment investigations.

Krauss’ leave announcement was followed by the removal of another top scientist, though details of that termination have not been disclosed. On Thursday, Columbia University removed neuroscience professor Thomas Jessell from his administrative positions and announced that it would be closing his lab following “an investigation that revealed serious violations of University policies and values governing the behavior of faculty members in an academic environment.” The Howard Hughes Medical Institute also ended Jessell’s employment last week, saying that he “violated HHMI policy.”

While official statements both from the university and HHMI are vague, a Columbia student news site posted on Wednesday that it had received an anonymous tip suggesting that the dismissal may be related to sexual misconduct.

Also in the news:

• While female researchers in the West are working to dismantle the culture of discrimination and sexual harassment that has so typified male-dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, a new book is highlighting what might seem an unexpected bastion of gender equity: Iran. In “Fifty Million Rising,” Saadia Zahidi, who heads up the World Economic Forum’s Education, Gender and Work programs, notes that nearly 70 percent of Iran’s university STEM graduates are women — a higher percentage than anywhere else in the world. Other nations in the region, including Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE see that metric come in at around 60 percent. That’s not to say, of course, that women in strict religious societies like don’t face real obstacles: According to a 2016 United Nations report, female labor force participation in the Arab region overall is slightly less than 24 percent, and among young women, it is less than 18 percent — the lowest rate among all regions. (Quartz, UNDP)

• An energy company executive was arrested in Honduras last week on suspicion of the 2016 murder of the well-known environmental activist Berta Caceres. Roberto David Castillo Mejia, who was detained last Friday while trying to board a flight to Houston, served as the executive vice president of Desarrollos Energeticos SA, or Desa, during the time that Caceres was killed. Caceres was an outspoken opponent against a dam the company was building on the Gualcarque River in western Honduras. Eight people are already serving sentences for the murder, though police believe Mejia to be the “intellectual author,” of the plot. (BBC)

• Over the past year, emergency room visits for potential opioid overdoses increased an average of 70 percent across five Midwestern states — Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri — illustrating the hardest hit region of the country. The largest increase, 109 percent, was seen in Wisconsin. These numbers compare to the 30 percent increase seen nationwide between July 2016 and September 2017. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that opioid overdoses increased for both men and women and across all age groups. The agency cites an urgent need for better coordinated clinical and public health responses across the country. (Indianapolis Star)

• In just two months this winter, the Boston area sustained a pair of storms that were among the most powerful in almost two centuries, researchers are reporting. The nor’easters, on January 4 and March 2, produced the first- and third-highest tides recorded in Boston Harbor since the 1820s — or the fourth- and eighth-highest, adjusted for changing sea and land levels. The comparisons were made possible by the discovery of tidal records from the 19th century in archives at MIT and Harvard; previous records went back only to the 1920s. Scientists said the frequency and ferocity of recent tidal storms were probably due to a mix of atmospheric changes, rising sea levels, and random chance. As Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, put it, “Weird is now the new normal.” (Boston Globe)

• A new analysis of two environmental threats — climate-driven sea level rise and the slow, steady sinking of land underlying the San Francisco Bay Area — warns that a far larger chunk of the urban area than first suspected is destined to go underwater. The timeline is long term, as the worst effects are not predicted until 2100. But the researchers, based at the University of California-Berkeley, say that whereas earlier calculations suggested about 50 square miles of property might disappear, the new worst case numbers are closer to 160 square miles. The study noted that while most of the Bay Area is sinking at rate of about two millimeters a year, some regions are subsiding as quickly as 10 millimeters a year (a little more than a third of an inch). (Wired)

• And finally: Google has long worked with government agencies to provide technology solutions, but its latest collaboration is raising what some believe are important ethical questions about the development and use of AI. The company’s TensorFlow APIs, which are used in machine learning applications, are now being used to help military analysts better identify objects in drone footage. “The technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only,” a Google representative told Gizmodo. “Military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We’re actively discussing this important topic internally and with others as we continue to develop policies and safeguards around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.” (Gizmodo) T