Science, Technology and Medicine in Society (STeMiS)

It takes work: Building reasonable research cultures in STS

Written by Warren Pearce, University of Sheffield

Photo by Aubrey Odom-Mabey on Unsplash: “Harvard Faculty Club”    

Claudia Schwarz-Plaschg’s story of sexual harassment and exclusion at the Harvard STS Program continues to reverberate within the global Science & Technology Studies (STS) community, and beyond into wider academia, in tweets, Zoom calls and corridor conversations. While the details of Claudia’s harassment are particularly shocking, other STS academics such as Lee Vinsel and Crystal Lee have described a wider research culture of emotional abuse and academic bullying on the Program, often towards junior colleagues. I have learned of at least one more example of a then postdoctoral researcher left in tears at Science and Democracy Network (SDN, the Program’s annual meeting) after a harsh dressing-down by the Program Director, Sheila Jasanoff, for ‘misusing’ the term co-production. While I never witnessed anything like this when attending SDN in 2014 and 2019, testimonials describing ‘court politics’ in the Program where favourites are given preferential treatment and others are excluded ring true to many, myself included. As such, maintaining a focus on all those responsible for research culture is crucial, while also remembering that the sexual harassers themselves currently remain nameless. Needless to say, investigations should be urgently carried out into all the allegations, and that such a process can provide a model for investigating harassment and bullying elsewhere in academia.

What has struck me in recent discussions is how many senior academics present themselves as powerless. It is trivially true that there is always someone with more power than oneself. However, there is a reflex towards assuming little can be done about toxic research cultures, particularly when esteemed academics are at the centre of them. As Athene Donald reminds us, those observing bullying should be willing to take action and not leave it to the victims. Fortunately, some in STS are taking a stand – notably the commitment by EASST president Maja Horst to a new institutional ethics policy, building on the work already undertaken by 4S. Perhaps unsurprisingly some of the strongest and bravest reactions have come from PhD students, such as this statement from WeDoSTS_Vienna. In short, senior academics have an important duty to provide and protect a reasonable research culture based on fairness, justice and respect.

This is a crucial political moment for STS, and I use the word ‘moment’ advisably. It will take work to do justice to the experiences of Claudia and others who have publicly testified. That work will take time but must be committed to before the shock of the revelations dissipate. As someone involved in UK STS through Science in Public and AsSIST-UK, here are four urgent challenges for colleagues across the global STS community:

  1. Harvard STS and the SDN Council should issue a public apology for the research culture along with a credible plan for reform (if such a plan is possible).
  2. Academics should arrange contact (from themselves or a trained colleague) with Harvard STS fellows for whom they wrote letters of support, giving fellows the opportunity to reflect on their experiences on the Program. Even if they expressed no concerns at the time, this may be because they felt unable to do so rather than there being nothing amiss.
  3. Academics should reflect on how to approach Harvard STS and SDN work in the future. The relationship between academic conduct and knowledge-production is important in any discipline, but has special resonance here given the core subject matter: the relationships between science, knowledge and democracy. There are contrasting views on this from there actively seeking alternatives to maintaining ‘business as usual’ citation practices. These are not easy issues to resolve and will likely be shaped by the tenor of institutional responses (see 1 above). What they do require is careful reflection, not a knee-jerk reaction.
  4. STS scholars should commit to actions that facilitate reasonable research cultures founded on mutual support and respect, rather than oppression. Stating or restating underpinning values is important. However, values can be indistinguishable from warm words without concrete plans of action. The new 4S ethics policy is a good start. While currently covering only 4S events, other STS institutions and academic departments should urgently consider adopting the policy (STS Italia are a national body who have made a promising start on this).

While nothing compared to the severe and prolonged impact on those directly involved, I have been shaken by this episode as someone who has collaborated with Harvard STS over the last three years. I hope that justice can be found for those who have suffered harassment and bullying, and that STS academics can do the hard work required to build a fulfilling and reasonable research culture in the UK and globally.

Acknowledgement: thanks to the colleagues who provided feedback and encouragement while writing this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s