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Image: National Snow and Ice Data Center [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr


Reducing the risk of harassment in remote research environments

In 2022, the problem of harassment in isolated research environments caught the US scientific community’s attention and attracted mainstream interest.

Driving much of the discussion were two publications. The first was an article on the Buzzfeed News website in December 2021, which carried the testimony of 16 female scientists who had suffered sexual harassment and assault at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, a research station in Panama.

This was followed, in August 2022, by a report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its linked bodies, the Office of Polar Programs (OPP) and the United States Antarctic Program (Usap).

The report revealed widespread assault, harassment and stalking at Usap sites and during missions. It makes for harrowing reading. “Every woman I knew down there had an assault or harassment experience that had occurred on ice,” one interviewee said. 

The NSF and the National Science Board—which sets policy for the NSF—have both since responded with emergency actions for assault and harassment prevention in Usap.

In November 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy brought together senior scientists, agency officials and survivors of assault and harassment for an online roundtable to discuss a way forward. Of course, while it is misconduct at US-linked sites that has so far garnered headlines, the problem is more widespread.

Here are five takeaways from the roundtable discussion.

1. This is not just about fieldwork

“Isolated research environments can still exist in proximity to bustling campuses or large metropolitan areas,” Asmeret Berhe, the director of the office of science at the US Department of Energy, said. “[They] can come in many forms, wherever people might feel threatened or unsafe because of their identity, and when they can’t find others to seek help from.”

Ellen Stofan, undersecretary for science and research at the Smithsonian Institution, agreed, but added: “Remote fieldwork presents a risk we have to address head on.”

2. Effective systems to report harassment are vital

A key finding of the Antarctic report was that NSF bodies lacked adequate reporting and response systems. The first point of action in the NSF’s response to the report was to set one up with a single communication endpoint for all complaints. 

While having a single communication point is sensible, so that reports of harassment do not get lost in the system, Stofan added that there should be multiple ways to reach it. For the Smithsonian this now includes “a 24-hour reporting line so that anywhere in the world, at any time of day, someone can pick up a phone a report what’s happened”.

3. Training is essential

There was consensus among participants that good specialist training of all staff and supervisors who work in isolated research environments was not a magic bullet but was nonetheless essential. Training for those who may not be victims or perpetrators of harassment, but will become aware of it—bystander training—was deemed particularly crucial.

Training should be imbued with a sense of urgency. “We need to be training supervisors on how to have difficult conversations with people—not the 400th time but the first time [they suspect inappropriate behaviour],” Stofan said. “How does a supervisor, a community, enforce standards from the start, so these things don’t get to the level they do?”

4. Challenge power dynamics

When it came to addressing the wider cultural issues that enable harassment, there was broad consensus on the need to pluralise and flatten the linear and hierarchical power structures that exist in isolated research units—and within science generally.

In Stofan’s words, victims will often not report harassment “because they feel the harasser has power over their career and they fear retaliation”. This is often a legitimate fear. To deal with it, Stofan said, the Smithsonian had begun breaking up reporting lines so that there are at least two people for a staff member to turn to in the event of harassment.

5. Time to examine the complex issues around this topic

When director of the OPP Roberta Marinelli said what has emerged about harassment in isolated environments is only “the tip of the iceberg”, she clarified that the sector is starting to hear of “very highly visible, extraordinarily damaging activities that tend to make headlines and are often criminal in nature”.

There was a lot of assault and harassment happening “below the waterline”, Marinelli said, that was not immediately visible but was nonetheless extremely damaging. This included gender harassment and “conduct which is hostile, exclusionary”. This needed more attention, Marinelli urged. Especially as the perpetrators were often senior scientists and, thanks to their scientific renown, reputational assets to their employers.

“How do we make sure [they] don’t keep being recognised as leaders and keep getting funding?” Erika Marín-Spiotta, professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, asked. This, the attendees felt, is an urgent question without an adequate answer. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com