A testimony of “guilt-by-association” harassment in astronomy
I am currently a postdoctoral researcher in astronomy at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Sweden. In the last two years, I have been harassed and discriminated against on multiple occasions by other astronomers in the international community for my choice to work with exoplanet pioneer Geoff Marcy. Geoff Marcy was accused of sexual harassment in 2015 and subjected to a public shaming, after which he apologized and retired from the University of California, Berkeley. The allegations were never investigated by a court of law, only internally at Berkeley. The scandal happened just a couple of months after Geoff Marcy initiated the $100 million dollar Breakthrough Listen search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the most extensive search program to date. I heard about the case in the media and followed it because I experienced damaging consequences after rejecting quid pro quo advances from an academic superior as an undergraduate (that episode was one of the main factors that made me leave my original undergraduate major and pursue astronomy). Years later, I got to know Geoff.
I believe it is a basic human right to be treated with dignity. It is also a basic human right not to be condemned without legal due process, and a basic human right to be rehabilitated into society even if one has ever been found guilty of a crime. A lifelong “cancellation” with no chance of redemption based on an extrajudicial condemnation is inhumane and cruel. With this in mind, I work with Geoff as part of the international astronomical collaboration called the Vanishing & Appearing Sources during a Century of Observations (VASCO) project where we search for vanishing stars and anomalous transients. This includes a citizen science project with a large outreach component. We also search for probes and artifacts from extraterrestrial civilizations near the Earth with the help of pre-Sputnik images. It is exciting work, and Geoff is an inspiring and greatly appreciated team member. We are further expanding our searches to modern instruments in order to carefully detect, validate and accurately localize any potential alien probe near the Earth, in real time.
As a result of my collaboration with Geoff, a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) conference at a public institution in the United States banned me from presenting results of the VASCO project. To do so, the organizers used a Code of Conduct with a uniquely crafted paragraph that appeared to be tailored to prevent me specifically from joining, which forbade the promotion of “work of those who have violated Professional Codes of Ethics” and they referred to Geoff when they sent me a letter to withdraw my presentation. This summer, the same institute organized another meeting, and kept the same Code of Conduct. When I published my first-author paper with Geoff as a co-author in Scientific Reports in 2021, Tweets were circulating showing a screenshot of my and Geoff’s names saying, among other things, “Yes women participate in rape culture”. Other Tweets called for scientists not to cite or promote the paper (ironically the paper later ranked as #6 most read in Scientific Reports in 2021). I received intimidating emails and calls from other astronomers. Further, a well-known astronomy promotion page publicly stated they would not promote our paper, nor a California team’s exoplanet paper published some weeks earlier (which also had Geoff as a co-author), as they condemned sexual harassment (as if anyone doesn’t). My first-author paper was excluded from a monthly newsletter because apparently I wasn’t the brain behind my own paper as one of the professors running that newsletter sexistly claimed that Geoff “had a heavy hand in it”, that he “knows Geoff’s style well” and he did not want to promote Geoff’s work. After I organized a successful meeting where I had invited Geoff, I was subjected to direct intimidation (threat-like) and allegations, which caused so much stress that I ended up in the emergency room some weeks later. When I applied to become an affiliate at a SETI-friendly institute in California just as my postdoc funds were finishing, I was informed that as an affiliate I could not apply for grants or publish papers as long as my team included Geoff. I had no option but to withdraw my application. Another SETI-friendly conference in the United States first invited me some months ago, but later did not confirm my registration and never replied when I emailed them asking about my registration. I still do not know what happened, only that I will not be there. So when I read Tweets wishing “academic death kisses” to all collaborators of Geoff with concrete suggestions on how to punish Geoff’s collaborators, I feel these words strongly.
Recently, Geoff was forced to remove his name from a paper written by a former graduate student of his (a woman, now an assistant professor) even though he had contributed significantly to it. He did this after his former student and other co-authors were subjected to sustained harassment and intimidation on Twitter due to his co-authorship, as well as allegations of misconduct. Many Tweets were circulating, some targeting Geoff with a new level of slander, others calling for the assistant professor’s tenure committee to be informed, and many pressuring co-authors to withdraw their names from the paper. Several male professors and directors in the United States were engaged in the attack on the young, female assistant professor over Twitter. (One of those individuals was also involved in some of the previously mentioned actions against me.) As a follow up on this episode, Science magazine published an article praising the reactions to the paper, without recognizing that not crediting Geoff’s contributions to the paper is actual academic misconduct and even goes against the Code of Conduct for journal editors!
It is shameful and unacceptable in a civilized society that we who wish to work with Geoff must experience waves of harassment from colleagues eight years after he was canceled as a result of accusations that were never subject to legal due process. In the last month, I sent a letter to several of the major organizations for professional astronomers explaining the issue. I hope so much for one of these organizations to help. As the letter circulated, the American Astronomical Society invited me to report the separate instances of harassment and discrimination to their “Code of Ethics Committee”, but sadly, they have so far not taken a single action to prevent further harassment and informed me that they “consider these cases closed”. The bullying can freely go on.
History has many examples of the negative impacts of excommunicating individuals according to questionable standards that are analogous to what happened to Geoff Marcy. Over the past century we have seen numerous such examples across the political spectrum, in the name of moral virtue. In my country, Sweden, such actions at a state-funded institute fall under the umbrella of “kränkande särbehandling” (victimization) and are unlawful. They should be unlawful everywhere. Furthermore, serious human rights violations occur when the determinations of internal university investigations are applied outside their intended context, go unscrutinized, are treated in public as if the process was conducted to the standards of a criminal court of law, and discrimination towards the condemned and their associates is institutionalized. Such violations deserve attention from authorities nationally and internationally, including the United Nations.
We all have to choose which side we are on: that of those who believe in a compassionate approach and respect human rights without subjecting other individuals to “kränkande särbehandling,” or that of those who condemn real human beings, flesh and blood, to lifelong punishment in the court of public opinion without lawyers to defend them.
I certainly know where I stand.
Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics (NORDITA), Sweden