The Dangerous Myth of the “Great Man of Science”
I’ve waited quite a while before writing anything substantial about the Geoff Marcy case, partly because I was too angry to reflect properly and partly because this is something impossible to write about with raising some very unpleasant ghosts. The scandalous behaviour of Geoff Marcy – whose repeated sexual harassment of a number of female members of his Department went unchallenged by the University of California at Berkeley for fifteen years – resulted in a slap on the wrist and a “don’t do it again” from the authorities followed by a badly misjudged email from the Head of the Department of Astronomy (where Marcy worked) which includes the following statement:
Of course, this is hardest for Geoff in this moment. For those who are willing and able, he certainly can use any understanding or support they can offer (this wouldn’t include endorsement of the mistakes he acknowledges in an open letter on his website). I ask that those who have the room for it (now or later), hear him out and judge whether there is room for redemption in all that will transpire.
No. It just isn’t “hardest for Geoff”. It’s hardest for the women he harassed, some of whom had to wait 15 years for some semblance of justice. This comment displays a lack of compassion for Marcy’s victims. This not only compounds an already disgraceful episode, but also gives a very clear indication of an attitude that explains why nothing was done earlier. It’s hard to believe that nobody knew what Marcy was up to, but it seems he had powerful friends to protect him.
Subsequently, however, a majority of faculty in the Astronomy Department composed a strongly worded statement concluding that Marcy could no longer perform the functions of a faculty member. I suspect it was that, rather than the feeble actions of the University authorities that persuaded Marcy finally to resign. He should, of course, have been sacked forthwith. He has now gone, but the fallout from this episode will last a very long time. Hopefully out of the debris some good will emerge, not just for Astronomy at Berkeley – because this problem is by no means unique to that place – but for science as a whole. I’d love to believe that Geoff Marcy is an isolated example, but I’m afraid that just isn’t the case.
I think it’s important not to let this case slip from our collective memory before lessons can be learned – hot topics grow cold so quickly these days. So many things are desperately wrong about this case that it’s impossible to comment on all of them, so I’ll just pick up on a few and make some personal comments and hopefully some suggestions. I’m focussing on sexual harassment because of the Marcy case, but what I say applies equally to other forms of harassment (e.g. racially motivated or homophobic) and bullying in the workplace.
The first issue I want to raise is that of procedure. I wish harassment and bullying didn’t happen, but sadly they do. If all members of a University department (staff and students) are to work together in an atmosphere of dignity and mutual respect then there has to be some sort of code of conduct and a process for dealing with behaviour that is unacceptable under the code. But it is not enough for these to exist. Staff and students also have to be aware of their existence and also to believe that the disciplinary process will be enforced rigorously. I have no doubt that UCB has a code of conduct, but the process of enforcing it failed lamentably. It’s not hard to see why given the attitude of the Department Chair.
In my opinion as soon as an allegation of sexual harassment is made it should always be given to an independent person to investigate. By “independent” I mean from outside the Department concerned and preferably someone who has no direct personal knowledge of the individuals involved. That would at a stroke prevent pals of the perpetrator from closing ranks. This is what we do in my own institution, in fact. I’m not saying that there are no instances of sexual harassment here but I really don’t believe anything would be allowed to go on as long here as it did at UCB.
A properly enforced disciplinary procedure shouldn’t just protect the person making the complaint; it needs also to protect innocent individuals from malicious allegations. It must also realise that people do make mistakes. Who can say that they have never made any inappropriate remark in jest that may have inadvertently caused offence? I certainly can’t. Likewise it is possible simply to misread a situation, to misinterpret a remark or body language, or to take a straightforward comment as a flirtation of some sort. We’re all humans and we can’t read each other’s minds. I don’t think such errors need to go to a full disciplinary hearing; an informal warning should do for a first offence, as long as there is an apology. Repeated offences are a different matter. A first offence of sexual harassment of the kind committed by Geoff Marcy should at the very least have received a final written warning, followed by summary dismissal for any further offence. Any difference in seniority must also be taken into account. All cases of harassment are unacceptable but harassment of a student by a senior Professor takes “unacceptable” to an extreme.
Failure to act strongly when such behaviour is proven just sends out the message that the institution doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously. Confidentiality is needed during an investigation – to protect both sides – but if the conclusion is that misconduct has taken place, it must be ackowledged publicly. Justice has to be seen to be done. Sexual assault, of course, is another matter entirely – that should go straight to the police to deal with.
So far I’ve just talked about protocols and procedures, but these can only ever apply a sticking-plaster solution to a problem which is extremely deeply rooted in the culture of many science departments and research teams across the world. These tend to be very hierarchical, with power and influence concentrated in the hands of relatively few, usually male, individuals. A complaint about harassment generally has to go up through the management structure and therefore risks being blocked at a number of stages for a number of reasons. This sort of structure reinforces the idea that students and postdocs are at the bottom of the heap and discourages them from even attempting to pursue a case against someone at the top.
This hierarchy of power suits those – usually men – who style themselves as “Great Scientists”. These individuals generally flourish at the head of a team of students and postdocs, but take as much as credit as they can for themselves, often actively hindering the career prospects of junior collaborators. They usually bring in large amounts of grant funding or other awards and possibly even the prospect of a Nobel Prize. In this way they convince their employers that they are indispensible to their institution, which encourages the bosses to turn a blind eye to their transgressions. They may be flawed humans but they are perceived to be great scientists. They are untouchable. Power corrupts, but it’s also too easily acquired by those who are corrupt already.
In reality the only reason why such people may appear indispensible is that they have made themselves so by neglecting (or abusing) their responsibilities to junior staff and students by (for example) not allowing them opportunities to pursue their own research. I’ve many stories of this type of controlling behaviour, which usually results in postdocs and students being discarded or forced out of research for lack of wider experience.
The fact of the matter is that the “Great Man of Science” is a myth, and a dangerous one at that. I’m not saying that there are no great scientists (male or female). I am saying that the elevated status awarded to some eminent individuals is deeply unhealthy and can lead to abuse of power, as recent events have revealed all too clearly. They are also an increasingly distorted reflection of how science actually works, which is more often than not through collaborations of equal but complementary efforts.
The unhealthy power structures I’ve discussed will not be easy to dismantle entirely, but there are simple things that can be done to make a start. “Flatter”, more democratic, structures not only mitigate this problem but are also probably more efficient by, for example, eliminating the single-point failures that plague hierarchical organisational arrangements. On the other hand, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and the existing arrangements clearly suit those who benefit from them. If things are to change at all, however, we’ll have to start by recognising that there’s a problem.
P.S. For the record I’ll just state that I’m obviously not a “Great Man of Science”. Nor am I a great scientist. I’m not a great manager of people either. But I like to think that I’ve done my job as Head of School sufficiently well that I now consider myself entirely dispensible!Follow @telescoper