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On presidential elections, power imbalance, and abuse in science

I should not be writing a blog post today. I should be finishing my poster for the American Society of Human Genetics conference in Vancouver that starts tomorrow. I should have finished this poster a week ago. But as I sit here in the airport waiting to leave, I cannot think of my research. I have watched the most vitriolic week in the history of American presidential elections, with each shocking revelation being closely followed by a new and more startling one. As First Lady Michelle Obama so eloquently stated, it has shaken me to my core. Yes, I am the father of a 12-year old daughter (and 7-year old son) and the husband of a wife, and the abusive words that one of our major party nominees dismisses as “locker room banter” sickens me for many reasons; I have never been in a locker room where someone bragged about sexually assaulting women. But that is not the reason I’m writing this blog post today.

I’m a recent graduate student, post-doc, and now a PI. The power imbalance that can propel a presidential candidate to brag about his abuse of women, that same power imbalance is inherent in academia and science. It is an unavoidable aspect of the mentor-trainee relationship. And the worst kept secret in science is that this power imbalance is sometimes (often?) abused. Within weeks of starting graduate school, I began to hear rumors of professors who had a habit of hitting on students at the department retreat, or were known to be dating a post-doc in their lab (while married or not), or worse. They were open secrets, and although far from pervasive, there were too many such stories to wish away as outliers or isolated incidents. The one common thread among them was the lack of investigations into or repercussions for the alleged offender. In most cases, nothing was done. In at least one case, the professor chose to “move on” to another school without any punishment for - or record of - their actions... only to be accused later of similar offenses. In other cases, I’ve heard people brush aside a PI-trainee relationship because they perceive it to be “consensual”; but how could someone at such an extreme power disadvantage provide consent? I must assume that the rumors I heard represented a small minority of the total number of incidents within and outside the lab setting. And sadly, I have seen too many good PI’s refuse to get involved because either they couldn’t believe their peer would commit such a heinous crime, or “it’s not my place to get involved” – willful ignorance or lack of courage. Either way, it has to change.

I’m not advocating that we spy on our lab neighbors, or tap each other’s emails. I’m not qualified to play the role of morality police. But my first year as a PI has been illuminating. I’ve experienced how that simple transition in title, from lowly post-doc to exalted PI, changes the way you are treated by graduate students and post-docs. After spending ten years feeling like you are a perpetual failure, suddenly you are afforded a level of respect and admiration, regardless of merit, that is intoxicating. Frankly, I could see how years of this treatment could make one forget why they are being treated this way, to assume it is because of the power of their intellect or personality rather than the esteem of their title. But recognizing that potential is not meant in any way to dismiss abuses of power that may ultimately stem from it. Rather, it is meant as a reminder to my peers and myself that with our position of authority comes the responsibility to continually acknowledge that power imbalance and respect the boundaries that it requires. My first promise to my trainees is that I will provide a safe environment for them to learn, take scientific risks, and grow as a scientist. If I can’t guarantee that safety, the quality of my research program or my ability as a mentor is a moot point – nothing else matters. I make a similar promise to trainees not under my umbrella. I will do everything I can to advocate for and ensure your safety. If I see or hear of a PI speaking or acting in an abusive manner, I will not look the other way. Your safety will always be my top priority, even if it may cause me retribution. If you choose to share your story of abuse with me, I promise to take you seriously, and to seek justice on your behalf. It is the least I can do.

I’m not arguing that we should treat science as a religion, nor am I arguing that we should expect scientists to be somehow more than human. That said, I hold science to a higher bar than most other professions. I worry that we risk losing the public’s trust if we don’t hold each other to the highest ethical standards. But mostly, I fear that we have allowed abusers to roam our halls and laboratories freely for too long, providing them with cover so long as they publish well and bring in large grants. And the result is that too many trainees – young women and men – have been exposed to abusive language, inappropriate physical touch, or worse. It is an abuse of power, an abuse of trust, a failure of safety, and it has to stop. As a new PI, I vow to do everything I can – and more if necessary – to prioritize trainee safety in my own lab and at the level of my institute, and to change this culture of secrecy, willful ignorance, and inaction. I hope I’m not alone in this pursuit.

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