Becoming a Better Space Family

The topic of this post will be uncomfortable to most, and potentially painful to some. Be warned that I will be discussing workplace harassment, as I and others in my field have observed it come to light over the past several months. I sent a similar memo to my SEDS Board of Directors colleagues a short time ago, though I’ve expanded on some details here. This post is necessarily astronomy-focused, but the principles remain the same whether you draw rockets or build them.

For those of you who have not heard, this fall, a prominent UC Berkeley exoplanet scientist, Geoff Marcy, was found to have repeatedly sexually harassed graduate students, postdocs, and department visitors for almost his entire tenure there (additionally, there are reports of this same behavior occurring while he was at his previous job, at San Francisco State University–though victims report being discouraged from filing formal reports). Marcy was stripped of all procedural protections against future complaints (UC Berkeley characterized this as a zero-tolerance policy regarding any future harassment–personally, this sounds like a slap on the wrist to me.) Marcy “retired” (read: “stepped down”) from his faculty position and as PI for the Breakthrough Listen project in mid-October.

Not an Isolated Problem

In the past two days, the names of to additional serial harassers have come out, facilitated mostly by FOI requests by complainants. Christian Ott (Caltech) and Tim Slater (fmr. Arizona, now Wyoming) were both found to be in violation of their universities’ harassment policies (in both cases, the behavior continued for several years). Ott has been banned from Caltech’s campus until July, though it’s not clear whether material consequences will emerge; Slater continues to receive big federal grants, and holds an endowed Chair position at the university of Wyoming, which claimed no knowledge of any complaints against him (though 38 pages of text from UA documenting its investigation are now a matter of US House of Representatives Record–I can’t recommend reading unless you’re willing to lose an evening to despair). Concise summaries of Ott’s and Slater’s cases can respectively be found here and here–beware: the first article is vulgar, and both are just plain icky. (On a related note, props to Buzzfeed’s Azeen Ghorayshi, who handled both Ott’s and Marcy’s stories with compassion towards their victims).

Simply put, the culture has been to close ranks and protect harassers, especially when they bring in lots of grant money. This is at the direct expense of the most vulnerable members of the academic community: students who are paid from senior colleagues’ grants and recommended (or not) for scarce jobs at their advisors’ whim; and junior scientists & faculty who are not adequately protected against retaliation when tenure review comes along. In the end, underground networks of concerned scientists pass around their lists of people to avoid at conferences. This is not sustainable or fair. In fact, I’d like to draw your attention to The Serial Harasser’s Playbook (written by one of Marcy’s former students who was one complainant against him), which outlines the escalating levels of inappropriate behavior that constitutes “canonical” harassment in academic astronomy. I imagine such behavior is not unique to my field.


The #AstroSH tag on Twitter is teeming with stories of how harassment (mostly perpetrated by senior, white, heterosexual men against junior women–undergraduates & graduate students, as well as postdocs and early-career faculty) negatively impacts the victim’s mental health. Moreover, it affects victims’ productivity at work, be it research, teaching, or professional service (though I strongly caution against using performance of such tasks as a measuring stick for the effect of harassment and abuse: after all, we are all humans, and deserve to be treated as something other than a machine that consumes food and produces papers/flight hardware/policy memos). Those victims with existing conditions, whether it’s physical or mental, are in an especially precarious position. They may depend on their harasser for health insurance coverage, without which they could die or be left in debilitating pain. People of color, non-straight people, and those with non-binary gender identity are subject to even more obstacles as they attempt to deal with harassment.

What Can We Do?

As a student organization, SEDS has a somewhat unique role to play. We must listen to and support our members if we are approached with a concern like this, and take firm action to prevent further incidents, while considering our own early-career status. In my opinion, this is in keeping with SEDS’s role as a progressive force in the aerospace and technology industries. SEDS has zero tolerance for harassment of any type among our board & staff (as well as among attendees at our events: conferences, meetups, tweetups, hackathons, retreats, and everything else), and we will take quick and decisive action to curtail any problematic behavior. Lastly, I hope that if you witness harassment involving SEDS, you will be comfortable approaching Andrew Newman, John Conafay, or me (Zach Pace): rest assured, we will handle the information professionally and keep your concerns as confidential as you wish, while maintaining the safety of other SEDS members.

Furthermore, if a colleague, acquaintance, or friend comes to you with their own story, I implore you to listen to them without judgment and with a heart full of compassion. They have chosen to talk to you because they are in pain, probably in part because their concerns have been dismissed before by someone in a position to effect meaningful change. Don’t tone-police; don’t suggest they dress or act differently; don’t discourage them from reporting. Just listen, assure them that you believe them & they have nothing to be ashamed of, and ask if there is any way you can help.

We like to say we’re a “Space Family,” so let’s act like one.


Leave A Comment

Leave a Reply