We know exactly what to do about sexual misconduct in the field

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Last Thursday, many months of investigative reporting culminated in a comprehensive and detailed article about the prevailing atmosphere of sexual misconduct in the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The article describes the tolerance of multiple serial offenders, and how STRI has not shown any sign of yet attempting a substantial process to repair this culture. Many survivors came forward for interviews, and yet this is only a tiny fraction of those who could have come forward. And there are even more who have stayed away because they were forewarned.

If you haven’t read this article yet, please do so. Here’s the link again.

This story hit close to home for me in a few ways: as a tropical biologist, as a person who personally knows a few of the survivors in the article and more who were not in the article, as a PI who has regularly sent students to work in tropical field stations, and as a director of a field station who is responsible for developing a healthy and safe institutional culture.

There’s one thing I want everybody to know about this situation: We know what should have been done. It is easy to know what needs to be done. There is a clear literature for this situation. The National Academies released a major report in 2018 that specifies clear steps that leaders must take to address the epidemic of gendered misconduct in STEM. Just weeks ago, the Workshop To Promote Safety In Field Sciences produced a report that provided “52 recommendations targeted at improving field science culture change, as well as misconduct accountability, policy, and reporting.”

This news story featured individual perpetrators, but was about a systemic problem. As described by the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, “STRI’s prior leaders appear to have failed repeatedly in their duty to ensure a safe working environment for its scientific community. This failure to act swiftly and decisively resulted in a pervasive culture of impunity and dangerous working conditions.”

If you do fieldwork, please look at this straightforward list of recommendations and consider how many are being followed for the places where you work. It would be a horrible mistake to look at what is happening at STRI and not reflect on our own organizations and institutions.

What is so damning and tragic about the situation at STRI is that they’ve been told so many times that their institution has been rife with a culture that tolerates misconduct. They’ve known. It’s been reported. They just haven’t done what has needed to be done. Is that work easy? Not at all. But it’s a matter of fundamental safety, and safety comes first.

If you aren’t a tropical biologist, or haven’t gotten to know people who have spent time at Barro Colorado Island (BCI) and/or the adjacent town of Gamboa, I would imagine this story is something of a revelation. However, this is no shock to anybody who has substantial familiarity with STRI. The article refers to “open secret conveyed through whisper networks,” but I had always thought of it as a well recognized fact in the tropical biology community. Over the years, I’ve known plenty of people* who mentioned they were thinking of doing work at BCI, and when I gave them the a “whisper network” warning about conditions on site, most were quick to acknowledge that they’ve heard all of the stories and they’ve made this choice full knowledge of the risks involved. But this wasn’t a thing that you could find on a website, until it became the focus of investigative journalism.

For what it’s worth, my own experiences at STRI are not inconsistent with the findings in the article, though they aren’t recent. I’ve visited the site on three occasions, for perhaps a cumulative time of five weeks, and all of this happened last century. Since then, from what I’ve heard, I hadn’t gotten the impression that anything had changed.

On my first stay at BCI in 1995, I was with a group of several graduate students who accepted an invitation after finishing an 8-week field course in Costa Rica. (At the time, STRI traditionally invited and paid for people who participated in OTS field courses in Costa Rica to come and visit BCI for a few days. They presumably wanted to entice us to work there but also to broaden our education as tropical biologists in general). There were two very weird things about that visit.

The first weird thing was our visit to the chateau of Dr. Bert Leigh. We were was warned about the invitation from Bert before arriving. (These visits are described in the article.) It was common when junior scientists visited to receive an invitation from Bert to walk up to his home on site for an evening chat. He walked up to some of us at mealtime, and just tapped some us on the shoulder, and by just telling us the time that we were expected, it was understood that this evening were the chosen few. When we showed up (there were maybe four others), we sat around in a little circle and handed us a large jug of Wild Turkey to pass around and to pour for ourselves (I recall I accidentally poured far far too much for myself, so I left most of it unconsumed), and he led the conversation by asking us a variety of questions about our science and our personal lives. I was not invited to say much because he clearly was focused on the women in our group. At the time, I characterized his behavior as lecherous, and nobody disagreed with me. What was really weird is when I was telling other people on site about how creepy his behavior was, and I was concerned about how other junior scientists may be getting it way worse from him, all the BCI people said were things like, “That’s just Bert, you learn to deal with it,” or “He’s harmless, though can learn a lot from him,” or, “Everybody goes through this with him. It’s a rite of passage on the island.” Even though this was only the mid-90s, it was clear to me that the Bert situation was far worse than garden-variety problematic. Since that time, I’ve talked to many other guests of Bert, all women, who were overtly harassed.

The second weird thing about my visit to STRI was my accommodation. It was a busy time on the island and a lot of the housing was occupied. They ended up putting me and a couple other people in a building that was condemned. It was one of the older structures at the research station and was extremely eaten by termites. It wasn’t just condemned out of general principle. It was downright perilous. The beds were up on the 2nd floor. Many of the floorboards were so weakened that you could easily put your feet through the floor, which did happen to be a few times when I was walking very carefully to avoid this from happening. I figured out which boards were more solid than others by trial and error. And thankfully, none of these errors were grievous. I was seriously afraid of getting hurt in that building. But was also afraid of complaining to the people in charge, and as a less experienced 23-year old grad student in a very foreign place, I wasn’t adequately prepared to advocate for myself as I should have. So I stayed in that building for my whole visit. The people who put me in that building knew how unsafe it was. There was a big sign on the front of the saying that nobody should enter the building, and they must have read this sign. But they had me and fellow students stay there anyway. This told me that this place simply lacked a culture of safety.

Even though I wasn’t jazzed about my first visit, I ended up going to BCI on two other occasions over the next few years, and that’s because there was funding specifically to work there (from the Mellon Foundation to do comparative work between La Selva and BCI, for those who remember those days). I haven’t been back since 1998 or so, and I’m fine with that.

I shared these two weird things about my first visit to STRI for specific reasons. The first one was simply affirm that I have passing familiarity with Leigh’s pattern of behavior from 1995, which is described in more detail in the article, and to drive the point home that he had been doing this for decades before I showed up at BCI, and apparently was still creeping on women students (“selectively pick[ing] the young, female English speakers for his Gamboa dinner companions”) 25 years later. Second, I wanted to explain in my particular situation, that STRI demonstrated a general tolerance for unsafe conditions. This is important because sexual misconduct in field settings will thrive in environments where there is disregard for following established safety protocols, and where there is a lack of transparency and accountability. When STRI provided me with dangerous housing, this is obviously different than placing junior scientists in situations where they are susceptible to sexual harassment and sexual coercion. But these are both failures of leadership in keeping people safe, and the reason it happened goes far beyond any individual who makes decisions. This was institutional culture that didn’t prioritize safety.

I imagine that before the end of this week, the Smithsonian and STRI will be coming out with robust statements about how they’ll be doing better in the future. They might say that there will be some accountability. Okay, fine. It’s on the scientific community to hold them to this. All of us need to apply the same level of scrutiny to the places where we are doing fieldwork to make sure that they are as safe as our trainees and colleagues deserve.

If you’re not sure where to start, then get reading. Here’s a direct download link for a pdf.

The problem isn’t knowing what to do, it’s about making it a priority and starting down the road of institutional change.


*If you’re wondering how I could be situated to know “plenty of people” preparing to do work at STRI, that’s because it’s a major destination for fieldwork, I’ve been working in tropical ecology for more than 25 years, and I’m a regular at a field station in Costa Rica and a lot of people who work at that site also work at STRI, because multi-site comparative work is valuable and the Smithsonian offers a bunch of internal funding to support work at STRI. People often work at STRI simply because that’s how they get their funding. They fully fund postdocs and have a lot of short-term fellowships for grad students. If you’re a grad student and looking for fully-funded research opportunities in the tropics, then STRI is a standout opportunity, if you can get a scientific staff member to advocate for you.

One thought on “We know exactly what to do about sexual misconduct in the field

  1. Thank you for sharing this perspective. It is valuable to hear from people who can share their experiences from before the events described in the article. These descriptions are disturbing to anyone who is less familiar with fieldwork in such situations (and for many who have done fieldwork in better situations), and I know it is not easy to reflect back on experiences early in anyone’s career. So I appreciate what you’ve written here.

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