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Issues across Science, Journalism and Media: Sexual harassment and the moral role of scientists, journalists and institutions

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Summary

I discuss how cases of sexual harassment at the academic workplace could be covered by journalists, examining the responsibility of individual scientists and of the institutions they belong to.

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This is the third in a series of notes in connection with the workshop on “Science, Journalism, Media: Communicating Science in a Changing India”, held at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.  The first of these outlines the aims of this series. It is available here.

Here, I address some questions that have traditionally been hardest to deal with at the science-journalism interface. These have to do with problems of sexual harassment at the scientific workplace, with unethical academic conduct such as plagiarism, and with academic forms of corruption ranging from accepting money to ghost-write a thesis to getting students to perform personal favours. They also include forms of caste, gender and other types of discrimination at scientific workplaces.

The list of such topics is large. These are uncomfortable questions and, even if one removed the journalism aspect entirely, hard enough to address at a personal level. There is no “right way” to deal with them. What I can do is to describe my own position on these matters and hope it stimulates discussion.  For concreteness, I confine myself here to discussing sexual harassment at the academic workplace and how it should be covered by journalists. Some of the points I make are general enough to cover related situations.

I draw on discussions with Rahul Siddharthan (IMSc, Chennai) and Sandhya Koushika (TIFR, Mumbai)  in particular, but also several others. These discussions have helped to clarify the way I think about these issues.

A central concern with how institutions deal with sexual harassment is whether due and fair process has been followed. This involves respecting the victim’s account while also allowing the presumption of “innocent unless proven guilty” on the other side. Such concerns are usually shared by many scientists who might be asked to comment about such issues.

The problem is that usually such cases fall into two extremes by the time one gets to hear about them. More often the victim’s account is downplayed, because existing power structures ensure that those guilty will face no consequences or strictures. But, on the flip side, guilt on the part of those accused is often automatically assumed, even if the investigation is yet to be completed or if revealed facts of the case suggest that the accusation might be motivated.

To tell which is which is hard and takes time.

This is often the reason why scientists, even those who are unlikely to face professional repercussions for doing so, might choose not to comment on such issues. That apart,  both institutional loyalty as well as loyalty towards people one knows, whether well or superficially, could often be involved. Finally there could be a desire not to interfere with processes that are in the process of playing out. Of course, a whole range of greys exist in-between.

My own view of what institutions should do, and this also relates to how journalists should present these issues, is the following: The possible victim of such harassment should be taken seriously and their right to privacy maintained, the alleged perpetrator should step down from any supervisory role while the investigation is conducted and indeed from any post or position where he/she might influence the course of investigation, the examination of the case should be done to ensure fairness (perhaps even by an externally constituted committee, although rules might not permit this), and what is done should be done fast, so that a clean resolution is reached.

This is actually, but in more concise form, largely what institutions are supposed to do anyway, given the mandate  of the institutional cells that deal with such issues. Rahul Siddharthan has drawn my attention to the  “University Grants Commission (Prevention, prohibition and redressal of sexual harassment of women employees and students in higher educational institutions) Regulations, 2015” gazette notification. This is a clear and sensibly written document that deserves to be studied carefully and its recommendations acted on. It certainly addresses my own view provided in summary form in the previous paragraph, but fleshes out many specific details  in addition.

As an scientist external to the scene of events, if asked by a journalist to comment on issues of sexual harassment elsewhere, I’m not sure what else I could say apart from what I say above.

Perhaps, if I spent a week or more examining a case in detail,  I might arrive at some understanding of what might have happened.  But the investigations required to establish which of a set of contested facts is true or not requires skills I don’t think of myself as possessing. Plus, the actual committees that investigated would be best placed to figure out the truth underlying multiple narratives.

What should I or similarly placed scientists do if the incident involves my own institution? I would apply the same standard. The need for fairness to both sides and the protection of privacy is central and this is often lost in the noise that surrounds such events.

What is sometimes more dismaying is what does the social media rounds, usually in the form of mass-circulated emails. The desire to take the accuser seriously is complicated by the automatic assumption that “the committee that did not take my side has ulterior motives and is in the wrong”.

This is where good reporting would make a difference to understanding whether due process was followed and fairness ensured. The point I want to make is that where the press can make a difference is in assessing the rigour and fairness of the process, sans specifics of a particular case. This is where institutions should support them.

As Sandhya Koushika points out to me, there is also a genuine need for what is called bystander training, roughly the development of strategies for bystanders to intervene to prevent sexual harassment. This includes understanding the signs of harassment, the ability and agency to call it out, the understanding of the responsibility of the bystander – to the victim, to the investigating committee, to a police or legal complaint as well as to society as a whole. This also includes understanding what can and cannot be said to the press if the guidelines above are to be respected.

What should the attitude of scientific or academic institutions be if journalists enquire about a reported case? If they could show that they took the steps I mentioned above, and were at least open enough to make the process, but not the individual-specific details, transparent, that would increase trust that institutional systems work and are fair to all sides.

To ask for more would enter the more delicate ground of the right of the stated victim to their own privacy and to control the narrative about them as well as the right of the alleged perpetrator to receive a fair hearing. It would also include the right of institutions to ensure both of these, in addition to fulfilling their obligations under law.

It would be fully appropriate for journalists to hold science institutions to such standards and to point out when and how the guidelines I’ve drawn attention to are violated.

I have excluded, from the discussion above, actual unethical behaviour, such as when a scientist turns a blind eye to ongoing harassment that they become aware of or when an administration ignores or glosses over related complaints.

In cases of actual misconduct, on the part of a scientific administration and/or scientists who connive in a cover-up, the moral lines are clear. Scientists should not enable unethical behaviour and should speak out with conviction and clarity wherever they see it. Scientific institutions should protect whistle-blowers, ensure that official  machinery (show cause notices, conduct rules etc.) is not employed to discredit their narratives, and set up unbiased, possibly fully external committees to examine their allegations. There can be no space for equivocation here.

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