The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has amended controversial changes to its policy on harassment following a backlash from astronomers, who said that the policy protected harassers and implied that the IAU would punish members for choosing not to work or engage with suspected or known offenders.
The latest version of the policy, contained in the IAU’s code of conduct, is “definitely a huge improvement”, says Anna Bull, director of research at the 1752 Group, a UK-based organization that studies and advocates against sexual misconduct. Others say that some of the wording still needs to be clarified.
In 2021, a report by the Royal Astronomical Society in London suggested that bullying and harassment are rife in astronomy. The IAU, based in Paris, is the largest astronomy association in the world, with more than 12,000 members across 92 countries.
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The organization announced the initial changes to its code of conduct in an e-mail to members on 16 August. The code’s section on harassment stated that it was “a form of harassment to physically or verbally abuse or discriminate against alleged offenders of IAU’s policies, or if such policies are found to have been breached, inflict (or pressure others to inflict) punishments besides those officially sanctioned”. The document added that harassment included “the physical or verbal abuse or discrimination of those who work or have worked with the alleged or sanctioned perpetrator, simply because of their scientific collaboration”.
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The wording sparked a backlash. Astronomers told Physics Today and Physics World that the changes opened the door to harassment allegations for scientists who refused to work with accused or known harassers, or to invite them to conferences. Others flagged that the code of conduct mentioned the collaborators of harassers, but not the allies of victims.
Harassment “is such a vital topic for all organizations to consider and discuss”, says IAU president Debra Elmegreen. She says that the executive committee had changed the code in response to reports of astronomers being excluded from conferences and having papers rejected owing to their scientific collaborations with alleged or known offenders.
After negative feedback, the IAU re-revised the code. The latest version, finalized last week, removes the controversial paragraph, and instead emphasizes that “any form of physical or verbal abuse, bullying, or harassment of any individual, including complainants, their allies, alleged or sanctioned offenders, or those who work with or have worked with them, is not allowed”.
The committee based the latest changes on input from the IAU’s working groups on equity and inclusion and women in astronomy, Elmegreen says, as well as member feedback. These working groups had not been consulted when the executive committee made the initial changes.
Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society, says that many of the society’s members welcome the latest revision.
Emma Chapman, an astronomer at the University of Nottingham, UK, was a vocal critic of the initial changes. But after the update she posted on X, formerly Twitter, that she was “so pleased @IAU_org listened to the constructive criticism many of us aired regarding their Code of Conduct”.
Bull, who also flagged problems in the previous code, says this version is “fairer”. Astronomy and physics are “probably at the forefront of these conversations, while other disciplines haven’t actually gotten to this point”, she adds.
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Others remain sceptical. David Hogg, a cosmologist at New York University, argues that the changes are “still strange”. “Why list all the categories?” he asks. “I would prefer it if the paragraph were simply: ‘Furthermore, we emphasize that any form of physical or verbal abuse, bullying or harassment is not allowed.’”
“I’m still suspicious of what counts as harassment of sanctioned offenders,” says Arthur Loureiro, an astrophysicist at the Oskar Klein Centre at the University of Stockholm. “Is it verbal abuse or bullying if I tell a student to avoid working with a known problematic offender? If I don’t accept a sanctioned harasser into a conference I am organizing with IAU funding, is that discrimination?” he asks. “We will have to see how the IAU now imposes these rules.”
“It is not verbal abuse or bullying to warn a student of a problematic offender. Verbal abuse and bullying are actions directed towards someone,” says Elmegreen. “While we hope that everyone will be treated fairly, this is our internal IAU policy. We do not have control over what happens outside of IAU events, and we do not have a say over whom people work with or hire.”
“Regarding attendees at IAU events, anyone is welcome to register for an IAU meeting. It is up to the [organizing committee] to decide whom to accept for speakers, since there are always more who want to speak than the allotted slots.”