The Geoff Marcy affair: Our failure as a community

This past week has been a very difficult one for the astronomical community. And I’ve been watching the whole mess unravel on Twitter. It hasn’t been pretty. But it needs to be told, and we need to shift the focus. It’s not all about the man at the centre of the storm. It’s about those who were hurt by him and the effects they had to bear. It’s also about all of us and how this affects us as a whole, and what we can do to change things.

In a nutshell, the discussion was kicked off by news that Geoff Marcy, a well known exoplanet astronomer, was the subject of a six month investigation by UC Berkeley into sexual harassment. Over the course of a decade! Based on commentary from those who were emboldened by this enough to come forward, it’s been going on even longer. He was formally found guilty as charged, but UC Berkeley seemed unwilling to give him any kind of disciplinary action or consequences, while seemingly giving no attention to the women who were victimised. His own apology left something to be desired, quite honestly. UC Berkeley itself is already under federal investigation for its poor handling of these matters, prompting little faith in their abilities. This immediately prompted an outcry of fury from astronomers across the world who, quite rightly, called for him to be fired from his post. The final word is that Marcy has resigned his post at UC Berkeley, despite the inevitable deniers, and blind defence of him. But the thing is, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

To date, thousands of astronomers from across the world have signed a petition of support for Marcy’s victims. Whether you’re a professor, an undergrad student, a citizen scientist, or an enthusiastic amateur, if you consider yourself a part of astronomy then please do sign the form yourself. It only takes a moment and letting people know that others care truly is important.

I will freely confess to being something of an idealist. I love the astronomical community, and I love being a part of it. Since stepping into my career in science, I’ve travelled to remarkable locations, participated in exciting discussions, and met many wonderful, diverse people. There are many more who I’ve never met in person. People who’ve inspired me, who’ve helped me, advised me, and supported me. Honestly, we have a pretty wonderful community here, which I hope to continue contributing to for some time to come; I want to give something back. Unfortunately, I’ve come to realise something else. At the heart of our community is something rotten. Something which has been ignored and allowed to fester and, as a result, has developed into a sickness. Ironically, it seems that what we really need is a doctor.

Conveniently enough, I know quite a number of doctors. Here are some!

Redacted username

(Username for that last tweet is redacted due to the person involved having recently locked their account, which is concerning in itself.)

The thing is that this actually hurts us all. We can’t allow toxic individuals to uncaringly damage our community like this. Many people will hear of this story and will only take home the message that an important scientist had to resign and how that’s “a great loss”. It’s not. The great loss is the – I’m going to guess – thousands of women and minorities who have been forced out of science because of Marcy and people like him. Every single one of them knows something which you and I don’t. Every single one of them was, and still is, full of potential. Every single one of them could have continued to be even greater than those important scientists who everyone likes to applaud. But instead they had to deal with emotional stress and trauma affecting their work, and many chose the easier option of leaving for greener pastures. And I don’t blame them. I wish them all the best. But they shouldn’t have had to take that option, and the fact that they were driven to it is our fault. Our failure as a community.

Marcy is an example here, of two things. He is an example of someone who’s been known for toxic behaviour for a long, long time. Aside from the genuinely shocking behaviour in the UC Berkeley investigation, there are a lot of women with stories about him which range from unsettling creepiness to all out assault. The worst part is that this was no secret. Apparently, everyone knew about this but chose not to speak of it. This part is just horrifying. That’s quite an elephant to be keeping in the room. More hearteningly though, he’s an example of the fact that no star, no matter how prominent, is too high to fall.

But Marcy and his behaviour isn’t the only elephant in this particularly crowded room. There are many who have harassed and assaulted women in our community, going about their business as if nothing had happened while leaving traumatised victims in their wake. There are others at lower levels whose behaviour is no less offensive who, seeing those higher up receiving no comeuppance, feel that their toxic behaviour is validated. Most of these people feel that there isn’t even anything wrong with their despicable behaviour. Off-the-record conversations between women on who to avoid at conferences and whose research group you’d be better off not working in are all too common. No less common than the men whose behaviour more than justifies those conversations. These people are amongst us, making no efforts to hide. If you work in astronomy, you almost certainly know some of them!

If you open your eyes, you’ll see that it’s everywhere. And it sickens me. I’ve heard friends tell me about entire institutions which they now need to avoid. I’ve seen people at conferences patiently putting up with unwanted attention and conversation. I’ve seen the look of hurt confusion in the eyes of friends as they try to process things which have been said to them. I’ve seen peoples entire dispositions ruined by the actions of an individual who probably thought them inconsequential. I’ve seen people I respect and admire seriously consider leaving the community to escape. I’ve seen others who left. I’ve sat with colleagues who were sobbing with tears over the way they’ve been treated. Enough is enough.

I’m just a postdoc right now. My voice is not yet loud enough to make a difference. But it’s my ambition to run a research group of my own someday. When I do, I want to bring new minds into our community. Minds who, it is my genuine hope, will continue to surpass me in every conceivable way. These people may be of any gender, sexuality, or ethnic background. I do not want to bring people enthusiastically into a career where they’ll be endlessly ground down by harassment, assault, creepiness, or microaggressions from people who they’re supposed to be looking up to. I don’t want to watch people fail to meet their potential due to things which they should not have to put up with. I’m know I’m not the only person who feels this way.

To do this, we need a fundamental change in the culture of astronomy. And while this discussion is centred on astronomy, the same is just as true in every aspect of science and research more generally. The sheer volume of headlines this year which are dealing with misogyny and awfulness in science are, honestly, disturbing:

Comes as no surprise that people are leaving, huh?

Attitudes need to change. We need to stop ignoring these things. We need to start making sure people know that abusive behaviour of any kind is not welcome and that we will not tolerate it. Fundamentally, we are a community. We need to take care of our own. We need to cast out toxic individuals. We need to support those who need it. We need to protect people who feel threatened or uncomfortable. To do any less is to fail.

The conversation is ongoing on Twitter under the hashtags #AstroSH and #AstroSA. This discussion has a long way to go…

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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2 Responses to The Geoff Marcy affair: Our failure as a community

  1. Pingback: “She is an astronomer” | Supernova Condensate

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