In its July 27th issue, Nature published an editorial encouraging leaders of the UK’s 1752 Working Group on academic sexual harassment to take their lead from the US. Sir Philip was in a lather after astrophysicist Emma Chapman updated  International Conference on Women in Physics on the difficulties of getting universities to publicly acknowledge or privately act on the issue of sexual harassment in academia.

Sadly, Sir Philip used his editorial to put the burden of rooting out harassment onto the very universities that have a vested interested in hiding scandal and bad behavior from their students, donors and alumni.

There was more than a bit of irony in Nature calling out sexual harassment. Nature is not unguilty of bias and insensitivity to women. (I just used a double negative because it was the nicest way I could think to say that.)

My writing companion, just another inconsequential scientist, fired off a nice non-sweary note to Sir Philip we are publishing here. The outraged editorials aren’t working. The lawsuits aren’t working. Here’s a plug on why it’s time for funding agencies to step in.


3 August 2017

Sir Campbell,

In reference to your Editorial on 27 July 2017, “More universities must confront sexual harassment” I respectfully take issue with your statements that it is hard to know “exactly how many students and staff are sexually harassed by university employees each year” and “More [UK] universities should look at what the United States is trying to do”.

Sexual harassment, assault and retaliation in academia are prevalent and persistent problems. One might reasonably predict that The 1752 Group will uncover comparable numbers to those in the US where one in five women experience an attempted or completed assault while in college, 64% of scientists experienced sexual harassment and 21% experienced sexual assault1,2.

As a female scientist who has been through a Title IX proceeding, the advice to, “Look at what the United States is trying to do” is ill-informed. US academics work under federal protections known informally as “Title IX”. I know of no public endorsements from those who have engaged in a Title IX proceeding that support the notion that process as open, just or swift. Indeed, Clancy et al reporter fewer than 10% of those who reported sexual harassment were satisfied with the outcome of their complaints.

Most notably, US academics that report harassment are often redirected to an internal process of investigation. Oversight on sanctions is often entrusted to a Dean, who cannot be an independent arbiter of matters that impact the reputation of their university.

I have previously outlining steps to improve the Title IX process3. Taking money and funded training slots away from schools that harbor individuals who sexually harass, assault and retaliate is the only way to effect lasting change. This power lies squarely with government funding agencies.

Funding agencies response to harassment is moribund at best and dangerous at worst. In 2016, NIH Director Collins said harassment would not be tolerated and called for “more study”4. Yet no study panel has been named, and there is not a single instance of NIH imposing sanctions on harassers. Moreover, NIH still has no formal process to report investigators who harass staff and students.

If US funding agencies and members of The 1752 Group are serious about ending harassment, simple steps such as requiring mentors to disclose any history of sexual harassment, assault or retaliation when applying for funds involving mentorship would a swift and fair means to dissuade predatory individuals and the universities offering them safe harbor.


BethAnn McLaughlin, PhD


1          Clancy, K. B., Nelson, R. G., Rutherford, J. N. & Hinde, K. Survey of academic field experiences (SAFE): trainees report harassment and assault. PLoS One 9, e102172, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102172 (2014).

2          Sofi Sinozich, L. L. Rape And Sexual Assault Among College-Age Females, 1995-2013. (2014).

3          McLaughlin, B. Title IX Isn’t Working: Nine Necessary Actions to End Sexual Harassment Culture in STEM, <> (2016).

4          Lauer, M., Valantine, H. & Collins, F. S. Policy: NIH push to stop sexual harassment. Nature 531, 35, doi:10.1038/531035b (2016).


A bit more for Nature’s Editorial Board: One would imagine you could take the lead and ask authors to verify they haven’t been privately found guilty of harassment. Journals go to great efforts to ensure all authors understand their data and role in publication. How about adding a line to each manuscript you publish in which authors agree they supported a safe and effective training environment for women and minorities? That would help.



Want to live on the Edge?


You must be logged in to post and subscribe to comments.


You May Also Like