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Another famous scientist investigated for sexual misconduct

A growing trend: powerful PIs with long trails of accusers


Brian Richmond, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, has been repeatedly investigated for sexual misconduct, according to an article in the journal Science. Richmond is currently the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on grants from the National Science Foundation that total more than $1 million. It's the latest in a series of high-profile reports on powerful men in science who are accused of abusing their position to sexually harass — or even sexually assault — subordinates.

In October, BuzzFeed revealed that astronomer Geoff Marcy had been accused of kissing and groping his female students; multiple complaints at different institutions didn't go anywhere. (Marcy resigned his position at the University of California–Berkeley following the BuzzFeed report.) Christian Ott, a Caltech astronomer, was suspended for harassment — the first time such a disciplinary action has occurred in the university's history, Science reported in January. The University of Chicago's Jason Lieb, a molecular biologist, resigned last week after reports of repeated unwanted sexual advances made to graduate students: Lieb also had sexual contact with a student who was — according to the university's report — "incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent," according to The New York Times.

These men pull in a lot of money for their institutions These men pull in a lot of money for their institutions. Most grants — like those from the NSF — don't just go to the primary investigators. The money, instead, goes to the institution and helps to support the work of other collaborators. Even if the PI has violated policy, the money often continues to support collaborators. Shutting off money to labs run by these PIs would also harm their subordinates, and might discourage people from reporting harassment at all.

Lieb brought in about $1.2 million in National Institutes of Health grants to the University of Chicago; Ott is worth more than $3.2 million in NSF grants; Marcy had numerous private grants, as well as a portion of the $100 million Breakthrough Prize and about $1 million from NASA, according to Nature. Richmond, the subject of today's report, has about $1.2 million in funding from the NSF — grants where he is the investigator or co-investigator.

Funding agencies must conform to federal sex discrimination law, called Title IX, for any research that receives money from the US government. Institutions must have a Title IX representative who investigates sex discrimination — which, legally, includes harassment and assault. AMNH's Title IX coordinator, Daniel Scheiner, conducted the first investigation into Richmond's conduct.

Though the NSF recently put out a statement saying it wouldn't tolerate sexual harassment among those scientists it funds — one that even threatened to yank funding from any institution that doesn't comply — the agency has never banned a grantee or institution for a violation. "The statement has no teeth," said Kate Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies sexual harassment in research field work. "It has absolutely no teeth whatsoever."

"The statement has no teeth. It has absolutely no teeth whatsoever."Partly that's because of how the reporting process to NSF works: the university's Title IX coordinator must report complaints to NSF, which conducts its own review. NSF isn't conducting a Title IX investigation against Richmond at this time, says agency spokeswoman Sarah Bates. But also, most academic institutions don't punish wrongdoers, Clancy says. A victim who reports may receive resources, but for the perpetrator, there are few consequences, she says. Not only does that mean perpetrators can move on to new victims, it also means they can retaliate against their old ones.

Several accusations have surfaced against Richmond. A public accusation of sexual assault by one of his employees led to a series of other allegations, according to the Science report. At a meeting for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, a research assistant at the AMNH said Richmond, then her boss, had sexually assaulted her at a previous meeting. Richmond says the sexual contact was consensual, according to the article. (Richmond didn't respond to a request for comment.)  In the resulting investigation, Scheiner — the Title IX coordinator— determined Richmond had violated the museum's policy on relationships between supervisors and subordinates, and that the research assistant would report to a different supervisor. This wasn't enough, the research assistant felt — so she loudly said he'd sexually assaulted her at the AAPA meeting. Her story spread rapidly through the meeting, prompting a second investigation, led by AMNH attorney Rhea Gordon.

After a second investigation, Richmond says he was given a raise This new investigation found more. Former students at a field school where he was employed say Richmond groped two undergraduates; one woman said that after Richmond fondled her ass, he propositioned her for sex. He didn't respond to the anonymous accusations except to say he felt it was "unfair" for Science to confront him with anonymous complaints. Further, the undergraduates in question weren't students he graded or supervised, he told the journal. Gordon finished the investigation in June 2015, and AMNH did nothing in response. In fact, after this, Richmond was given a positive job evaluation and a raise, he told Science.

Then, shortly after journalist Michael Balter began investigating the claims against Richmond for Science, a third investigation was opened, which is being conducted by an outside firm called T&M Resources. "It's not that we believe the [Gordon] investigation was inadequate," says AMNH spokeswoman Anne Canty. "If there is more information out there, we want to know." When The Verge asked if any new information had come to light to prompt the third investigation, Canty replied because allegations "continued to circulate," creating "growing consternation in the anthropology community," another investigation was warranted. An outside firm was brought on board to investigate because "much of the alleged conduct concerns activity prior to his employment at the Museum — on other campuses and locations where no complaints were filed."

There may be more investigations coming from paleoanthropology. About two-thirds of anthropologists and other field scientists have experienced sexual harassment, according to a survey of 666 people that Clancy published in 2014 in the Public Library of Science. Twenty percent of respondents — 139 people — had experienced "unwanted contact." Half of the women who'd been harassed reported their harasser was their superior. (Most men reported harassment from peers.) Female students and post-doctoral researchers were the most frequent targets for harassment, the study found. Clancy is now working on a second paper using the survey data, as well as separate work in astronomy.

However disheartening the rash of harassment cases may look, Clancy says, there is some good news. "It means we're creating conditions so that reporting isn't a career-killer," she says. Hopefully that means better days ahead for students and junior scientists, and fewer promotions for the people who harass them.