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Smithsonian island outpost reeling from sexual-misconduct claims

A view through the surrounding forest of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Barro Colorado Island, Lago Gatun, Panama.

Sexual-harassment allegations have shaken the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.Credit: Design Pics/Alamy

Accusations of sexual harassment and assault are rocking the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), a renowned centre for ecological research based on an island in the Panama Canal.

After years of open secrets and simmering rumours, the issue escalated last month, when 49 scientists co-signed a letter to US President Joe Biden’s administration that called for sweeping changes at the STRI, which is part of the prestigious US-based Smithsonian Institution, to address a long history of alleged mistreatment.

The letter, dated 9 December, was addressed to the White House Gender Policy Council (GPC).

It came on the same day that more than one dozen scientists shared their personal accounts of alleged harassment and assault in a BuzzFeed News article.

The fallout has been swift. Joshua Tewksbury, an ecologist who became the director of the STRI in July 2021, tells Nature that, in 2022, the Smithsonian is likely to form a task force to investigate issues of harassment and assault. The task force will welcome input and participation from alleged victims. “We’re reaching out to everyone named in that BuzzFeed article and inviting a dialogue,” he says. “It became clear fairly early on in my tenure that this issue was going to define our work for the foreseeable future.”

Tewksbury says the allegations and the dialogue he wants to foster are particularly pertinent to field-research stations, where scientists of various ages and levels of seniority both live and work in close proximity. He adds: “There’s a lot of willingness for change, and it’s a time when we can create change faster than we could before. Habits die hard, and sometimes they only die when they have to.”

An established problem

The STRI was already aware of some of the allegations. In 2020, eight women — including Sarah Batterman, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, and the University of Leeds, UK — filed a formal complaint of sexual misconduct against former STRI staff scientist Benjamin Turner. The full complaint has not been made public, but Batterman told BuzzFeed that Turner harassed her repeatedly and sexually assaulted her in 2011 during a conference in San Francisco, California.

Turner did not respond to Nature’s request for comment on the formal complaint or Batterman’s accusation of assault. He also did not respond to questions about his current affiliation. Turner previously held a title as a courtesy assistant professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, but a university spokesperson says that position ended in May 2021.

The 2020 complaint triggered an internal investigation, and Tewksbury says that the Smithsonian has severed all ties with Turner. But Batterman tells Nature that much more needs to be done — including implementing better systems for reporting abuses, and taking swifter action to protect women on the island and elsewhere. “I’m hoping for institutional changes at the Smithsonian,” she says. “The science community as a whole needs to recognize that this is a problem.”

In April 2021, 43 STRI staff scientists signed an open letter supporting Batterman and the other women who had spoken out. “We commend these women for coming forward — these are courageous acts that come at significant personal costs, acts that ultimately should help make STRI a better place,” the letter stated. It called for a series of reforms, including increased transparency and accountability.

In an interview with Nature, Batterman says she has reached out to roughly three dozen women who worked at the STRI over the years, adding that about three-quarters of them say they personally experienced harassment or assault while working at the institute. “It’s truly sobering and awful to think about how many careers have been affected by sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Smithsonian,” she says. “Many women are no longer in science. Think of all of the discoveries that would be made and papers that would be written if women didn’t have to deal with this.”

Tewksbury says he can’t comment on any ongoing investigations or specific personnel matters. He declines to clarify whether Turner quit the STRI or was dismissed, but says that, in the past, the institute has terminated the employment contracts of people who committed “monumental breaches of the ethics code”.

Whether Turner left on his own or was forced out, it was not a clean break. “Disentangling a very active academic from the network of collaborators is a very messy process,” Tewksbury says. “The fallout is huge and complicated and ongoing.” Among other things, the institute is trying to recover data that had been under Turner’s control. “We have decades-long data sets that have been essentially orphaned,” he says.

Turner is not the only STRI scientist who has been accused of harassment. A decade ago, Meg Crofoot, an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis, says she was harassed and romantically pursued a decade ago by Egbert Leigh, then a staff scientist at the STRI. In a comment to Nature, Leigh confirms that he had “had a devastatingly disruptive and inappropriate crush” on Crofoot following his wife’s death, adding: “I was not my normal self, not that this excuses anything. Dr Crofoot’s behaviour during this episode was entirely honourable.”

Crofoot says that she “reached a level of closure” with Leigh years ago, but she thinks that issues at the STRI remain. She says the time and emotional energy that alleged victims have spent trying to get results only adds to their trauma. “This is a huge tax on our professional productivity,” she says. For her part, Batterman estimates that she’s lost three years of work out of the last decade as a direct result of mistreatment.

Necessary changes

The STRI is committed to changing the way that complaints are submitted and handled, Tewksbury says. In the past, he says, people who wanted to file a complaint didn’t always know the best way to proceed. “You have to normalize that process.” Leigh, who has been stripped of his emeritus position at the STRI, agrees that the process for reporting misconduct should be clarified and streamlined. He adds that people assigned to receive the complaints “should really care about people and their problems”. He says that “punishment should be designed to correct, not avenge” and that “due process to verify guilt is essential”.

In 2020, the Smithsonian launched the SI Civil Program, a resource modelled on a similar initiative at the US National Institutes of Health. Anyone in any Smithsonian department can now call a hotline to report misconduct. The office has a civil coordinator who serves as a single point of contact.

Laura Dunn, a victim’s rights attorney based in Washington DC, represents Batterman, Crofoot and 12 others who say they were harassed or assaulted at the institute. She says that women are often reluctant to accuse senior scientists of misconduct. “Some of these women were very nervous about the high-profile nature of the men they were accusing,” Dunn says. “Are they going to be retaliated against? Are they going to face defamation lawsuits?”

Dunn helped to craft the 9 December letter to the GPC; the council was set up by Biden in March 2021. The Smithsonian receives two-thirds of its budget from the federal government, and, by charter, the US vice-president sits on the management board. The administration has acknowledged receiving the letter, but has not yet publicly commented on the contents. The office had not responded to Nature’s request for comment by the time this article went to press.

The letter states that staff scientists at the STRI have too much control over the work and careers of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. Batterman explains that, in addition to serving as gatekeepers for data sets and field sites, the staff scientists have historically decided which junior researchers would receive fellowships. “The staff scientists have so much power that you’re beholden to them,” she says.

Tewksbury says that, in an attempt to blunt at least some of the power of staff scientists, the STRI is changing how junior researchers are awarded fellowships. In the past, staff scientists would discuss among themselves which researchers might be worthy of fellowships and match the fellows with mentors. The new process puts more emphasis on the potential and credentials of the trainees than on the preferences and persuasiveness of mentors, he says.

The 9 December letter calls for renewed attention to safety at STRI facilities. It noted that, until recently, many bedroom doors at the STRI didn’t have locks. The letter recounted a claim that some female scientists used rocks to secure their doors. A scientist says that she was assaulted in her bedroom after a male scientist pushed a rock aside. Tewksbury says that all bedrooms now have lockable doors, but he notes that such safeguards are impractical in field sites, where researchers sleep in tents.

The dynamics of an island-based research institute where people live, work and socialize together complicates efforts to protect researchers, Tewksbury says. “Strong power imbalances, coupled with close, informal working environments, large age differentials and alcohol all increase the risk of abuses of power and sexual harassment,” he says. “The two main venues where that wicked cocktail is mixed up are field research stations and conferences.”

“It would be a mistake to say [sexual misconduct] is a problem with STRI per se,” Crofoot says. “Assault, sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions are a common thing at field stations. There’s a need for institutions to recognize that they can’t continue to ignore these problems.”

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