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Thursday, November 1, 2018

After more than 20 years in the hands of one researcher, the nearly complete "Little Foot" hominin skeleton from South Africa will finally be open to other scientists at the end of November

Ron Clarke and skull of "Little Foot"/Wits - Wikimedia Commons
In 1994, Ron Clarke, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, was looking through some museum boxes filled with fossil specimens from the Sterkfontein caves, located about 40 kilometers northwest of the city. Beginning in the 1930s, a number of hominin fossils had been found there, mostly australopithecines, in what South Africans call the Cradle of Humankind.

Clarke quickly realized that four of the fossils, all small toe bones, had been misidentified as belonging to monkeys. They actually belonged to an early hominin, most likely another australopithecine. It quickly became known as "Little Foot."

Over the following years, Clarke, together with his collaborators Nkwane Molefe and Stephen Motsumi, searched the cave grotto from which the toes had come, trying to find more fossils. They eventually came across an almost complete hominin skeleton, encased in breccia. Under the official direction of the late Philip Tobias, the legendary Wits paleoanthropologist, Clarke and his colleagues began the slow task of extricating Little Foot's very fragile bones. It would take them nearly 20 years; the skeleton was finally put on brief public display last year.

Over this entire time, as he and his colleagues dug it out of the cave, Clarke had pretty much exclusive access to Little Foot, although he has so far published only very limited descriptions of the fossils. At the end of this month, however, Little Foot will become open access, or as the Wits fossil curator refers to it, "open collaboration." In other words, other teams will be able to study the skeleton and publish their own papers about it. Indeed, one research group, led by Wits paleoanthropologist Lee Berger--leader of the Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi teams in South Africa--has already had access to the skeleton earlier this year, and is expected to publish its results sometime after the open access date of November 28.

At this point I have to pause for a back story that provides important context, that of a long rivalry between Ron Clarke and Lee Berger well known to human evolution experts (even if they might not be aware of all the details.) When it came time for Tobias to retire in the mid 1990s, Clarke and Berger became the main contenders to replace him. During a visit to Wits in 2011 to profile Berger for Science magazine, I interviewed Tobias in his office and he told me the story.

Lee Berger and the cranium of Au. sediba


Tobias told me that the search committee could not decide between Berger and Clarke--individuals with very different skill sets--and so asked him for his opinion. Despite having earlier asked to be kept out of the process, Tobias told me, he agreed to do it. He made up a list of pluses and minuses for both men, and it was pretty close, Tobias said. But on balance Berger, who had done his PhD with Tobias, had a small edge, mainly because he was young, very enthusiastic, personable, and good at raising money; Clarke, very well respected and older than Berger, was a more experienced scientist, Tobias said, but less able to publicly represent paleoanthropology at Wits. (I think that anyone who has seen Berger give a public talk would see what Tobias saw; I was present when he talked to some middle school students in Johannesburg and it was quite amazing to see how brilliantly he conveyed his own enthusiasm for the science.)

But later, Tobias said, he soured on Berger, after he became convinced that the younger man had tried to steal credit for the discovery of Little Foot from Ron Clarke. Tobias told this story to many others, and before long, pretty much the entire biological anthropology community was convinced this was true. However, during my 2011 visit, I spent a lot of time in the Wits archives researching the question, as well as talking to both Berger and Clarke and many others about it. I continued this research for weeks after my return home. Most of my findings ended up on the cutting room floor, because Science thought it was inside baseball. But the bottom line was that the accusations were not true, as the university itself had found during its own, earlier investigation. I assume, however, that Tobias went to his grave still believing them.

That brings us back to the present. Berger had long argued, correctly I think, that the very long period during which Clarke had exclusive access to Little Foot was bad for science, especially after publication of the discovery of Au. sediba in 2010. Although the exact dating of Little Foot has been a matter of fierce controversy, Berger thinks they are relatively close to being contemporaneous. That means that a comparative study of Little Foot, Au. sediba, and other hominin fossils could help to illuminate a key period in human evolution, assuming that the South African hominins were not an evolutionary side show as some have argued. I've talked to many scientists who agree with Berger that it is long past time for Little Foot to be fully published and for others to be allowed to study it.

That is now happening. In a Skype interview earlier this year with Bernhard Zipfel, Wits' curator of fossils, and Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits' deputy vice-chancellor, the two men gave me the details of the open access plan. Vilakazi pointed out that Wits had an obligation under South Africa's heritage laws to make Little Foot available for study, but that policies were fairly loose concerning how long the discoverer of a fossil could have exclusive access. Zipfel said that normally a researcher would have seven years after a fossil was out of the ground, but that the long time it took to extricate Little Foot justified giving Clarke some extra time.

During the conversation, Zipfel said that he preferred the term "open collaboration" to "open access," because the university hoped to foster collaborative studies between different scientists--even between Clarke and Berger, although that does not seem likely to happen. Nevertheless, early this year, Berger's team, after submitting a research application, was given access to Little Foot, which in November 2017 had been moved from Clarke's lab at Sterkfontein to a vault at Wits in Johannesburg (more on that in a moment.)

Berger is understandably reluctant to discuss the situation, especially as his own study of Little Foot will not be published until sometime after the November 28 date and thus he is not free to talk about the results before then. And, according to Zipfel, beginning in 2016 the university had to negotiate a compromise between what Berger wanted--immediate access to Little Foot at that time--and what Clarke wanted, no access at all until he had published his own analyses and descriptions. The early access by Berger's team, but delay in publication, was the compromise arrived at by the university officials in consultation with outside experts.

But in a lengthy email to me relating his views on the process, Clarke made clear that the way it was handled had left a bitter taste in his mouth. Clarke said that Little Foot had been removed from Sterkfontein while he was giving some lectures in China, and that he was informed of this while he was there. (Zipfel confirms this account, adding that neither Clarke nor Berger knew the skeleton had been spirited back to Johannesburg until after it was done.)

Clarke also defended the long time it took him and his colleagues to get Little Foot out of the breccia, which had to be done with air scribes, needles driven by compressed air, to avoid breaking the fragile fossils. Clarke said that Berger's application to study Little Foot, in 2016, was "highly inappropriate" and that this should not have been allowed until after his own publications were in press. (Clarke told me that he expected those papers to be published by November 30.)

I've given this background because I think it is important to understanding how we have finally arrived at what most scientists will surely see as good news: Little Foot will be fully published at long last, and other researchers will be able to study it and draw their own conclusions. Science, and all of humanity, can only benefit.

Update Nov 8: Since this was published, some have pointed out to me that Ron Clarke did not use air scribes exclusively to extricate Little Foot from the breccia, but that he and his colleagues used hammers at least some of the time. This is illustrated in a YouTube video about the skeleton, and I recall seeing hammers used at least briefly during my visit in 2011. This story will be updated as it develops.





Tuesday, October 9, 2018

University of Bath acknowledges ongoing misconduct investigations in its Department of Biology & Biochemistry

University of Bath
In recent weeks I have reported on allegations of bullying and sexual harassment in the University of Bath's Department of Biology & Biochemistry, and specifically on two bullying investigations the university has carried out. Today the university press office has acknowledged that it is carrying out additional investigations in the department. One of them probably involves sexual harassment accusations concerning plant geneticist Rod Scott, because my sources at Bath indicate that the university is keenly aware of those allegations. It is possible that other faculty members are implicated as well. I will continue to report as things develop, but meanwhile here is the university statement conveyed to me today. The two completed investigations refer to Nick Longrich on the bullying counts and Stephanie Diezmann on the bullying and destruction of property counts; as I indicated in my earlier reporting, Bath cleared Diezmann of the destruction charge despite uncontested documentary evidence that she had carried out the alleged acts.



A University of Bath spokesperson said: “We can confirm there have been a number of allegations about behaviours that would breach our ‘Dignity and Respect’ policy involving staff and students in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry.

“We do – and will – take all complaints extremely seriously. It is vital people feel comfortable coming forward and reporting under our Dignity and Respect policy. As part of our planned, organisation-wide #NeverOK campaign, we have launched a reporting tool that enables anyone, staff or student, to disclose information. The tool is confidential and available on our website here. In addition, a range of support services are available to any member of the University community.

“We are committed to ensuring that due process is followed. Our HR procedures ensure people involved are treated reasonably, consistently and fairly. We will support affected staff and students throughout the process.

“In fairness to all parties concerned we are not commenting on the detail of ongoing HR investigations, to allow due process to take place.

“Two, separate HR investigations have now been completed. A formal complaint under our Dignity and Respect policy was upheld and a formal, oral warning has been issued. Another investigation relating to allegations of bullying and destruction of property has been completed and found that there had been no misconduct.

“All staff and students have a right to be treated, and have an obligation to treat others, with dignity and respect. We expect all staff members to support and embody our values, including working responsibly and with respect for others and fostering equality, diversity, inclusivity and accessibility at all times.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

University of Bath's mounting problems: Add sexual harassment to bullying [Updated]

Rod Scott: Accused of sexual harassment
Something stinks in Bath, and its not coming from the Roman spas that gave this city in Somerset, England its famous name. Rather, the rot is coming from the nearby University of Bath and its Department of Biology and Biochemistry.

Last month I reported on the serious bullying allegations against paleontologist Nick Longrich, a faculty member in the department and a researcher in its brand new Milner Centre for Evolution. After the university upheld the bullying complaints and they became public, the Leverhulme Trust--which had awarded a nearly 1 million pound grant to Longrich--rescinded the award.

More recently, I have learned that department member Stephanie Diezmann, an expert in infectious fungi, is under investigation by the university for bullying and destruction of intellectual property. Diezmann is reportedly in the middle of a move to the University of Bristol, but it is not yet clear whether Bath has informed that institution about the allegations against her. (My queries to both the Bath and Bristol university press offices about this have not yet been answered.)

In a department where faculty bully students, can sexual harassment be far behind? The answer is apparently no. I have now talked to several sources who can document that the university--including its human resources department and the head of the Biology and Biochemistry Department, David Tosh--have been aware for at least three years about allegations of sexual harassment of students against Rod Scott, an expert in the molecular genetics of plant reproduction. (Scott is also a former head of the department.) At least two other male faculty members in the department have also allegedly engaged in harassment or other inappropriate behavior, I am told by multiple sources.

To protect victims and witnesses, I am not providing details of the harassment, although I can assert that the allegations are based on solid, credible information from sources whose identities I know. (These are best described as confidential sources, rather than "anonymous" sources.) The sources also allege that the human resources department at Bath has discouraged victims from filing complaints, in both subtle and overt ways. Finally, and most seriously, there are indications that Scott may have tried to retaliate against victims who decided to make complaints.

There are some signs that the university knows it has a serious problem. After the revelations about Nick Longrich, Bath posted confidential contact information for reporting misconduct on its internal Web site (accessible by students, faculty and staff), and made a show of concern. Yet until the university begins to weed out the abusers by willingly making its investigations public and allowing the guilty to be named and possibly fired, students and staff will continue to live in fear of bullying, harassment, and retaliation.

I welcome comments on this blog post, anonymous or otherwise; anyone who contacts me about this can be assured of complete confidentiality.

Important update 5 October:

Yesterday I was informed by the University of Bath press office that the misconduct charges against Stephanie Diezmann had not been upheld after an investigation and disciplinary proceedings. I am reproducing the university's statement below. However, this conclusion was reached despite the fact that the university is in possession of extensive documentation supporting contentions that Diezmann engaged in bullying of at least one student and that she destroyed a student's intellectual property in an apparent act of retaliation. The circumstances of the latter, well documented allegation are particularly serious and there were multiple witnesses to the event. Diezmann will soon move to the University of Bristol which was also allegedly aware of a history of bullying at the time she was hired.

As of this writing, Diezmann has not responded to my request to tell her side of the story.

To protect sources, I will not be able to provide more details at this time. But I do hope that Bristol takes steps to protect students from bullying once Diezmann takes up her new post later this fall.

This is the university response, sent to me by email:

Here’s our statement re the two questions you asked about Stephanie Diezmann.

A University of Bath spokesperson said: “The University can confirm that an investigation has taken place into alleged misconduct by a member of academic staff. The conclusion of a formal disciplinary hearing was that there had been no misconduct. The member of staff concerned has herself made her future employer aware of the investigation and its outcome.”
   

Friday, September 7, 2018

#MeToo investigation of famed paleoanthropologist David Lordkipanidze sees light of day at long last

David Lordkipanidze/Wikimedia Commons
Introduction

It probably does not happen often that a six-month long journalistic investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct against a leading scientist (or any leading figure, for that matter) ends up on the reporter's personal blog. Indeed, it did not have to happen this way. But the series of events I will now describe left only two choices: Bury the story forever, or post it here, where at least I have total control over its contents.

After this introduction, I will post the story itself, modified to fit the current circumstances. But first the history of the investigation, as briefly as I can manage.

In the spring of 2017, a student in Europe sent an email to several hundred anthropologists, accusing a well known human evolution researcher of misconduct during a relationship he had with her. The Verge (Vox media), for which I had already conducted a couple of key sexual misconduct investigations, assigned me to look into it. By then I already had a track record for doing this kind of reporting, largely on the strength of a lengthy investigation for Science focusing on the curator of human evolution at the American Museum of Natural History. 

Then, two weeks later, an anthropologist I will call "Diane" posted a personal account on a well known science blog about an experience she had when she was a graduate student. According to Diane, she had been sexually assaulted by the principal investigator at a well known human fossil field site. She did not name her aggressor in the original blog, but later identified him on social media as David Lordkipanidze. After discussions with editors at The Verge, we decided to combine these two stories since they both involved human evolution researchers.

(Note: Although "Diane" gave me permission more than once to name her in my article, as long as I did not directly quote out of her blog post nor refer to its contents more than just briefly, I have decided to spare her extra grief by using a pseudonym. She is aware of this. I have also eliminated any details of the sexual assault she suffered, but the contemporaneous witnesses I cite back up her account of it. For more thoughts on the question of whether victims/survivors of sexual misconduct should be named, please see the Epilogue of this story.) 

After some months, however, it became clear that these were two very different stories, and we decided to split them into two. (The original story has not yet been published, for reasons relating to protecting the student involved. That is all I can say about it here.)

As the investigation wound down and we prepared for publication, I approached Lordkipanidze--whom I have known personally for nearly 20 years--and asked him to comment on the allegations. Lordkipanidze retained an attorney in Atlanta, famed for his aggressive and successful pursuit of defamation claims: L. Lin Wood, perhaps best known for representing the parents of JonBenet Ramsey, and Richard Jewell, who was falsely accused of bombing the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

Wood sent a 62 page response to my editors and The Verge's attorneys, in which he denied all of the allegations against Lordkipanidze and cast serious aspersions on my reputation, credibility, and ethics. He also questioned the credibility of Diane and other alleged victims. Wood concluded by assuring The Verge that publication of the story would lead automatically to litigation. Nevertheless, my editor and I continued for at least a couple of additional months preparing the story. But when we had prepared a near-final draft, the attorneys recommended killing the story.

I have promised my editors and the attorneys at The Verge not to discuss the details of why the story was killed, although I was told that I could say we were still on good terms and that the accuracy of my reporting was not being questioned (I was paid in full for it.) And I am confident that the article is fully and multiply sourced. I would be remiss, however, if I did not say that the threats of litigation from L. Lin Wood were highly relevant to the decision not to publish the story. There is no question about that.

After some reflection, I sent the draft to my former editors at Science, even though the publication and I had separated on bad terms--after 25 years of a very close relationship--in the spring of 2016. After about a week, Science got back to me to say they had decided to pass, on the grounds that with a story like this they prefer to work with a reporter from the beginning of the investigation. I have no quarrel with that reasoning and appreciated them considering the story.

I then, late last year, sent the story to David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, to whom I had pitched previous stories. I had known Remnick since 2009, when he and the magazine were on the receiving end of a somewhat negative story about them for Science. To his credit, although he was not happy that Science did that story, he apparently no longer held it against me by the time I began pitching ideas to The New Yorker.

Remnick passed the story to the magazine's online science editor, who got in touch. We had a series of lengthy discussions about it, and at least twice The New Yorker appeared to come close to publishing it, with some additional editing and fact checking. But after three months, the magazine finally decided to pass. One reason for the delay in making a decision, I was told, was that the magazine's fact checking department was badly stretched by the big effort needed to handle Ronan Farrow's #MeToo stories (an effort I certainly applaud.) I don't want to disclose my other discussions with the editors there, but again the accuracy of my reporting was never questioned; other considerations came into play, with which I did not agree, but that was that.

That brings us to the present, and the story you will read below. I decided not to try yet another publication, for my sake as well as, mostly importantly, the sake of the victims and other sources who had thought for many months that it would eventually be published. Now it will be, on my terms, although the version here is based largely on the final version we prepared for publication at The Verge

Important note: All sources cited in this story, whether named or not, have given permission for the information attributed to them. I will have some final thoughts about my experiences trying to get this story published at the end of the article.


A blog post, an accusation, a denial

With every passing day, more and more women, and a smaller but significant number of men, are coming forward to describe the myriad ways in which they were victimized by sexual predators. Few areas of human endeavor have been spared: The entertainment industry, the political world, the media, academia, as well as the workaday world where men and women work hard for very little pay. The sciences have not been spared either. Astronomy and astrophysics, molecular biology and microbiology, neuroscience and psychology, are just some of the research fields that have had to confront allegations of sexual misconduct. In many cases, the charges have led to the resignations or firings of high-profile researchers with stellar scientific reputations and long publication records.

For the past three years, researchers who study human evolution have been forced to confront serious allegations of sexual misconduct in their own field. The most visible case was that of paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, who in December 2016 was forced to resign as curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, after a long investigation into accusations that he had sexually assaulted a colleague and harassed a number of students. Only this summer, after a long search, was the museum able to replace Richmond, with a talented female researcher.

Yet while the Richmond case was ongoing, both women and men in paleoanthropology and related fields such as archaeology were quietly discussing other longstanding allegations of misconduct. Last year, one colleague suddenly decided to go public. On May 2, 2017, Diane (not her real name), an anthropologist at a university in the northeast United States, posted a description of her own experiences on a popular science blog to which she is a regular contributor. Under the heading “In case this helps you: This happened to me while I was trying to become a paleoanthropologist,” Diane described being sexually assaulted in 2003 by the director of a Homo erectus field site.

Diane did not name the site nor the director in her original blog post. But as the link quickly spread on social media, she invited colleagues to ask her who she was talking about. They did, and she responded, “David Lordkipanidze.” He is the leader of excavations at the famed site of Dmanisi in Georgia, about 55 miles southwest of the capital, Tbilisi. Lordkipanidze, who rose to prominence after the discovery of numerous early human skulls and other human fossils at Dmanisi, is also the general director of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.

Diane later deleted her blog post, although she has left Lordkipanidze’s name visible on social media and she has not withdrawn the accusation. (In fact she has made it clear to me and to the anthropology community that it was not because anything in the post was inaccurate.)  Meanwhile, my investigation for The Verge uncovered numerous other allegations of sexual misconduct by Lordkipanidze, including a serious charge that he sexually assaulted a colleague in his hotel room during a scientific event in the United States.

Lordkipanidze flatly denies assaulting Diane as well as other women who have made similar charges against him. And a number of Lordkipanidze’s colleagues working at Dmanisi have come to his defense, insisting that they have never observed him engage in misconduct. But others describe a chronic pattern of harassment and inappropriate behavior with women, stretching over a period of at least 15 years. And Diane’s claims are supported by at least four contemporaneous witnesses who say she told them about the alleged assault either immediately or shortly afterwards.


A pattern of sexual misconduct in anthropology, and a fabulous fossil site.

Even before the allegations first surfaced against Richmond in 2015, anthropologists and archaeologists knew their domain of research, which relies heavily on field studies in cradles of human evolution such as Africa and Asia, was particularly susceptible to sexual misconduct. In 2014, four anthropologists published a “Survey of Academic Field Experiences” in the journal PLOSOne. The so-called SAFE study, based on an anonymous online survey, found that 64% of the 666 respondents reported they had suffered sexual harassment while doing the kind of fieldwork fundamental to anthropological and archaeological research. (A sequel to this study, based on interviews with researchers engaged in fieldwork, was published late last year in American Anthropologist.) Thus a number of the alleged episodes involving Richmond took place in Kenya, which, like Dmanisi, hosts a field school which attracts young students from all over the world.

“When the Richmond allegations initially became widely known, the field was already at a heightened state of awareness,” says David Strait, a paleoanthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “The SAFE study had forced men in our field to confront the sobering fact that sexual misconduct, including assault, was a very real problem in our discipline. Women already knew this, of course." 

Researchers have been digging at Dmanisi since the 1980s, when they found remains of ancient plants and animals. In 1991, prehistorians from Georgia and Germany launched a new round of excavations at the site. They got lucky that first year, finding the jawbone of an early human just above a layer of volcanic rock that had earlier been dated to about 1.8 million years old. But other scientists were skeptical: conventional wisdom at that time held that humans had not left Africa much before 1 million years ago. The skepticism persisted even after a human foot bone was found at Dmanisi in 1997.

The site of Dmanisi in Georgia


Two years later, however, the Dmanisi research team—now led by Lordkipandize, the son of a famous Georgian archaeologist—discovered two human skulls in equally old volcanic layers. (I was present at a May 2000 meeting in the south of France where Lordkipanidze presented the skulls publicly for the first time, and I coauthored a news story for Science that accompanied the publication of the skulls in that journal the week after the meeting.) The new finds silenced the skeptics, and established definitively that humans had left Africa much earlier than anyone realized. Most scientists now recognize the skulls as belonging to early members of the species Homo erectus. Further work at Dmanisi, which is still a very active research site, has now uncovered a total of five H. erectus skulls, along with many other early human fossils.

The new discoveries put Dmanisi on the scientific map; researchers and students from all over the world flocked to the site. They also turned Lordkipanidze into a top scientific celebrity, a status greatly enhanced by his power to decide who could work at Dmanisi and who could have access to the fossils and other data.


An exciting summer in the field ends with a sexual assault

In 2003, Diane was a graduate student in the anthropology department at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. She had been fascinated by Homo erectus, friends and colleagues say, and planned to make this pivotal human ancestor her life’s work. She had already published her own studies of H. erectus, and had landed a prestigious graduate student fellowship that allowed her to travel to Dmanisi, the world’s most important H. erectus site. “She was glowing with excitement,” says one of her closest friends from that time, a fellow grad student at Penn State. “She had been so thrilled about her planned PhD project with the Dmanisi material.”

Although Lordkipanidze was still director of the Dmanisi excavations, by 2003 he was spending most of his time at the museum in Tbilisi and not at the site, say several researchers who were working at Dmanisi at the time. His usual habit, they say, was to come shortly before his birthday, which would be celebrated by a large dinner and a party--a Dmanisi tradition that continues to the present day.

One female researcher who was present recalls the events that led up to Lordkipanidze’s alleged assault on Diane. “We went to lunch with [Lordkipanidze] and [Diane] and...one other person,” this researcher says. “He was clearly interested in talking to [Diane.] He enjoyed [Diane's] company. But she was not interested.” The researcher says that she and Diane discussed the situation after lunch and decided to make a plan to protect her, because it seemed clear that during the evening Lordkipanidze’s attentions to Diane were “going to be an issue.”

Sure enough, the researcher says, during the evening party Lordkipanidze “kept trying to get her alone. All evening.” Finally, she says, Diane went upstairs to bed. The researcher followed her up minutes later, but Lordkipanidze had already followed Diane up the stairs and allegedly assaulted her. “We had spent the whole evening trying to avoid that,” she says, describing how upset Diane was at the time.

Adam Van Arsdale, an anthropologist now at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and a graduate student at Dmanisi from 2002 to 2005, relates a similar version of events.

“The field team hosted a celebration of our work and of David’s birthday,” he says. “Following the dinner, a group of us were sitting at the large, common table at the field house with David. It was late in the evening at this point and dark outside, but a generator was providing light. At some point the generator went off and the porch area which housed the table more or less went dark.” Van Arsdale says it was not uncommon for the generator to either run out of fuel or be turned off, so he was not alarmed at the time. “With the lights suddenly out, people began moving off in various directions. I moved to the front of the house to continue hanging out with several of the other students. Some short time later, I recall [Diane] joining us, in a clearly agitated state.”

Diane, Van Arsdale says, then described having been assaulted by Lordkipanidze while the lights were out, and gave the group details of what had happened. (Diane described the episode in a similar way in her now deleted blog post.)

“We talked about the event a few times in the days that followed,” Van Arsdale says, “at which point another female graduate student who was with us at the time said that she had been groped by David during [that] evening as well.” (Van Arsdale, who continued to work at Dmanisi until 2011, has published several papers about fossils from the site, including some papers on which Lordkipanidze is a coauthor.)

When Diane returned to Penn State at the end of the summer, she immediately confided in a few trusted colleagues about what had happened. One of them was Pat Shipman, an anthropologist at the university and a well known science writer. “[Diane] talked to me about it,” Shipman says. “She was upset. Sure, now and then an attractive female grad student could expect to receive passes. This went beyond that, an assault, unwanted.” Diane told colleagues that she was not going back to Dmanisi. “It was untenable to continue working at the site” or on the fossils, Shipman says. “That would put her right back in that situation again. It was a potentially dangerous thing to do.”

Diane also talked to her close friend, the Penn State graduate student, about the assault. “She said she was not going back,” the friend recalls. “She was heartbroken. I realized this dream she had was not going to happen. Some man had taken advantage of her and ruined it.”

When Diane went public with her accusations last year, friends and colleagues praised her courage and expressed support on social media. One supporter--anthropologist Rebecca Ackermann of the University of Cape Town in South Africa--tried to draw a broader lesson from Diane's alleged experience and the effects that sexual misconduct have on scientific progress. Addressing Diane on Facebook, Ackermann pointed out that sexual misconduct “can shape not only the life and career trajectory of the victim, but also the direction of the science. Without you studying H. erectus, questions that would have been asked were not. And while you obviously have done remarkable things in other specialties, nonetheless paleoanthropology is poorer for losing your voice.”

Although Lordkipanidze denies assaulting Diane, I spoke with a number of researchers who worked at the site around the same time, during the first half of the 2000s. Several of them described behavior by Lordkipanidze that they considered inappropriate. One female researcher, from a European country, says that in about 2001 or 2002—she cannot recall the exact year—she had to physically shove Lordkipanidze away when he made advances towards her. “He approached me with his hand on my cheek, wanting to kiss me. I pushed him, shoved him, slapped him.”


An alleged sexual assault in the United States

But Lordkipanidze's behavior was not restricted to Dmanisi itself. Another woman says he attacked her at a conference in the United States in 2011. The alleged victim says that following a dinner meeting with Lordkipanidze, he asked her to stop by his hotel room so he could retrieve some literature about Dmanisi for her. Inside the room, after rebuffing one advance from him and thinking he had accepted that she was not interested, the victim suddenly found herself pinned down on a couch with Lordkipanidze forcibly kissing her. "I was terrified," the victim recalls, noting that Lordkipanidze is big and strong. When he finally released her, she jumped off the couch and left the room, returning to her hotel. The victim confided in a friend shortly after the alleged attack, a researcher she knew well. That friend confirmed to me that she had told him about the incident at the time.


Lordkipanidze's colleagues come to his defense

Lordkipanidze has defenders, especially among other members of the Dmanisi team who are still doing research there. Jordi Agusti, a paleontologist at the Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution in Tarragona, Spain, says that he has worked at Dmanisi every year since 2000 yet has “never observed the kind of [inappropriate] behavior” described by some other colleagues. Agusti adds that “this kind of behavior is also highly improbable coming from a Georgian person. Georgians have a deep feeling of the family.”

Lorenzo Rook, a geoscientist and paleontologist at the University of Florence in Italy, who has also worked at the site since 2000, says that “in almost 20 years of working at Dmanisi I have never heard, neither as rumor nor as a direct report, [a] case of sexual misconduct and harassment.”

A third team member, a female anthropologist who asked not to be named, also says that she never saw Lordkipanidze engage in inappropriate behavior. “I did not see anything like that. [Lordkipanidze] was always supportive to me,” she says. “He always respected me. If there was something there I did not know about it.”

During my investigation, I was contacted by three Georgian members of the Dmanisi team, who are also coordinators of a summer field school for students the team has conducted since 2009. In several email exchanges with me, the three—Teona Shelia, Gocha Kiladze, and Ann Margvelashvili—insisted that there was no basis for misconduct allegations against Lordkipanidze or any other member of the team. (Kiladze, in 1999, was the first to spot the glimmer of a human skull in the archaeological sediments at Dmanisi.)

“Since 2010, we continuously collect an anonymous feedback from [field school] participants, where anyone can speak out and address any topic they wish to,” the three wrote, adding that “During these surveys, we never had any complaint in regard to any type of harassment, assault or any displeasure toward the Field School organizers, research members, or participants.” And they vouched for Lordkipanidze’s good character in the most emphatic terms. “Anyone who has ever personally met him can attest that he is always trying to be kind, respectful and helpful to everyone visiting the site, to both female and male scientists.”

As for the specific allegations that have been made against Lordkipanidze, the three stated in a later email, “we cannot exclude a possibility that we must deal with a carefully planned malicious plot to discredit some of the major architects” of Dmanisi’s success. They did not, however, respond to repeated requests to provide evidence for such a plot or possible motivations for why some alleged victims might be falsifying their stories. (And some of these team members helped Lordkipanidze's attorney, L. Lin Wood, and his law firm prepare the 62 page response to the allegations referred to above. In their eagerness, they compromised the identity of at least one possible victim of Lordkipanidze's inappropriate behavior, someone whose name I did not know previously.)

To get a better idea about the atmosphere at Dmanisi in more recent years, I contacted 15 former field school students to ask them about their experiences, including both men and women. Eight of them responded, and of those, four said that they had not seen any behavior they considered inappropriate—although some added that Lordkipanidze was rarely at the site when they were there.***

But the other four, all women who attended the field school in 2015, told a somewhat different story. Each of the four described situations that made them uncomfortable. One says that on the evening of Lordkipanidze’s birthday party, two men she had not seen before arrived for the celebrations. “I had no idea who they were or why they were at the field school, but all the Georgians seemed to know them, so I assumed they were part of the Georgian Museum. It became evident, very quickly, that the only reason they were there was to pick up girls.” The student says that the men focused their attention on two students in particular, although she was not one of them.

A second student says that one evening, in the midst of some heavy drinking, a young Georgian man who was working on the excavations pulled one of her female fellow students away and got her in a location that was out of sight of the others. Shortly afterwards the woman could be heard yelling, and her colleagues had to intervene to pull the man from on top of her. They did not report this episode to the leaders of the field school, however.

A third student says that Lordkipanidze himself engaged in behavior with her that she considered inappropriate. “On a few occasions, under the influence of alcohol, he got a little handsy with me. Not to the point where he couldn’t feign ignorance but enough to make me uncomfortable.” Asked to clarify what she meant by “handsy,” the student added: “He would touch my back casually, and then slide it much lower than is appropriate, at which point I would distance myself pretty fast.”


Dmanisi: An atmosphere charged with sexism and harassment?

While the allegations against Lordkipanidze himself are very serious, the ambience at Dmanisi seems typical of that at many archaeological and paleontological field sites. Some researchers say that the ubiquitous presence of alcoholic beverages exacerbates the problem, providing both an opportunity and an excuse for misconduct. Such a view is expressed by the European researcher who says she had to physically rebuff Lordkipanidze’s advances in 2001 or 2002. The ubiquitous availability of alcohol at Dmanisi, she says, including chacha, a Georgian brandy with at least 40% alcohol content, creates an atmosphere that blurs the lines between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. “When you are drunk you lose the boundaries,” she says.

A male scientist who worked at Dmanisi also describes the party atmosphere at the site. “There were quite often large parties at the field house, especially when international teams would come visit, with music, dancing, and drinking competitions.” During these parties, a second researcher who attended them in those early days says, “whenever I would see [Lordkipanidze] he would be sitting as close as he could sit to a female student or kissing her on the cheek or the neck.” This researcher says that the women would typically be wearing tense smiles, “trying not to offend him. I saw this on a number of occasions, at least five times.” In one case the researcher remembers particularly well, the student “was cringing, cowering into a ball, trying to close off her body physically.”

A third Dmanisi team member from that time says that while he did not directly witness any incidents, Lordkipanidze’s visits “were usually preceded by warnings from senior graduate students, male and female, about his behavior. I think at some point we may have started being more careful about not letting female graduate students get into a situation where this might happen, that is, always being in groups and not letting them get separated or isolated.”

“It was common knowledge that Lordkipanidze was a sexual predator at the field house at Dmanisi, and that sexual harassment was basically institutionalized there and facilitated by his staff,” says another archaeologist who also worked at the site in the early days. “Often times my fellow archaeologists would commiserate about his predatory behavior, but we were very aware that we were guests in a foreign country. To impose our values and ethical standards on another culture, albeit reprehensible in our view, is against a foundational principle of anthropology, the concept of cultural relativism, where we accept cultures on their own terms without judgement.”

[Please see clarification below about the meaning of cultural relativism, which several anthropologists have pointed out is incorrectly defined in the paragraph above]

Added to that concern, a former Dmanisi team member says, was the sheer scientific excitement about working at such an important early human site. “There were about 40 archaeologists there, it was the golden era,” he says. “The sheer number of hominin fossils we were finding in the early and mid 2000s was absolutely staggering, which, like the constant flow of alcohol at Dmanisi, intoxicated all of us, blurring our senses and our ethics.”

It remains to be seen whether public exposure of the long hidden allegations against Lordkipanidze will sharpen the senses of researchers who work there. “Culture change is hard and is dependent on smaller and larger everyday actions by members of the group,” says Susan Anton, an anthropologist at New York University and immediate past president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. While high-profile cases such as Richmond’s and Lordkipanidze’s allow “discussion of a once taboo subject,” she says, too much focus on individuals “runs the risk of allowing each of us to avoid individual responsibility for our role in producing our culture.”

During my investigation, a number of current Dmanisi team members expressed considerable concern that publication of the allegations against Lordkipanidze would damage the important excavations there, and possibly lead to international colleagues shunning the site. Just how the accusations will affect the future of the research at Dmanisi remains to be seen. Yet, as we have seen with the Weinstein case and so many others in recent months, that future may depend heavily on whether those individual team members choose to believe the accusers, or the accused.


Epilogue

Over the months since The Verge killed this story, I have been determined not to let it be buried. While trying to interest another publication in publishing the investigation, I have used social media repeatedly to warn researchers--especially female students--about the danger I see if Lordkipanidze managed to get them alone. In the meantime, the testimony of Diane--who is highly respected in the anthropology community, and whose allegations are widely believed by her colleagues--has raised the consciousness of anthropologists about the situation at Dmanisi and Lordkipanidze's behavior in particular.

As an example, earlier this year the German Academy of Sciences organized a human evolution meeting in the German cities of Leipzig and Halle, which was supposed to take place this coming November. Many illustrious researchers were invited. However, when some of them learned that Lordkipanidze was scheduled to speak during the very first session, at least a half dozen wrote to the Academy to protest and said they would not attend if he was present. In the end, the Academy cancelled (or at least postponed) the meeting rather than face the embarrassment of a boycott and a public scandal.

Moreover, the story I tell above is not complete. There were other victims who told me their stories but are not yet ready to see them in print, even anonymously. They are still recovering from the trauma of their experiences, and they still fear retaliation if they go public.

As for me, my experience with this story has led me to conclude that, since the Weinstein revelations, editors have raised the bar too high for victims who want to speak out about their alleged abuse. When I began writing about sexual misconduct, the longstanding journalistic rule that victims of sexual assault did not have to name themselves to have their stories told was still in force. Indeed, in my article for Science about Brian Richmond, we did not name the principal victim nor others who were victims of harassment (although a brief episode, during which my editors pushed me to pressure the victim into going fully public--which I refused to do--was a major factor in the breakdown of mutual trust between me and that publication.)

Post-Weinstein, most editors I have worked with, and I think others as well, have begun insisting that at least some victims be named. That puts incredible pressure on both victims and reporters, because this really should be a choice. It's a kind of "Me Too" in the worst possible sense, in which the priorities of the publication are privileged over the needs of the victims. I hope that an open discussion of this can take place soon. But for that to happen, the problem has to be identified and recognized.

*** This section involving the students at the field school has been updated based on new information that came to light since the story was first published.


Clarification: Several anthropologists, including one who writes in the Comments below as "Anonymous," have pointed out that the archaeologist quoted in that paragraph was using the term "cultural relativism" in an incorrect and misleading way. As one expert put it, cultural relativism is about understanding a culture, not necessarily accepting all aspects of a culture uncritically. A very interesting discussion of these issues can be found in this post by Jason Antrosio in the blog Living Anthropologically (Full reference: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Cultural Relativism 2011 – DSK, Guinea, & Mike McGovern.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/cultural-relativism-anthropology-101/. First posted 20 July 2011. Revised 7 September 2017.) A key quote from this article: "...cultural relativism is a method, a way of understanding, but not a philosophy. It is not a way of avoiding judgment, but may actually lead to better judgment.”

Thus the archaeologist quoted also assumed that by harassing and assaulting women, Lordkipanidze was acting according to the norms of his own Georgian culture, which is insulting to that society. I personally agree that this appears to have become an intellectual excuse for not protesting clearly unprincipled and abusive behavior, so as to retain access to the fossils and other data (and to further one's own career.) There is considerable evidence that some non-Georgian members of the Dmanisi team are continuing to overlook bad behavior at the site out of this kind of expediency.

Friday, August 31, 2018

University of Bath paleontologist loses 1 million pound Leverhulme grant over bullying complaints

Some readers will have seen my Tweets over the past week about Nick Longrich, a paleontologist at the University of Bath with a reputation for bullying students and postdoctoral researchers in his lab. This has raised serious concerns among members of the paleontology community, who are worried about both current students in his lab as well as several new ones who are reportedly scheduled to begin working with him this fall (in academic terms, that means imminently.)

According to sources familiar with the situation, Longrich's bullying behavior has included shouting and screaming at his students and postdocs, and belittling them and their scientific abilities. Issues have also been raised about the quality of the supervision he gives to his junior colleagues.

In response to my initial queries about this, the university press office issued a curt statement on August 22:


“All staff and students have a right to be treated, and have an obligation to treat others, with dignity and respect. We can confirm that an investigation has taken place following allegations of bullying and appropriate disciplinary action has been taken. In fairness to all those involved we will not be commenting further at this time.”


But after I began widening my queries, including contacting the chair of Longrich's department and the head of Bath's Milner Centre for Evolution--with which Longrich has an important affiliation--the university got back to me with a more detailed statement as follows:


“In fairness to all those involved and taking into account our obligations to staff and students under legislation relating to General Data Protection Regulation we are providing further information only where we are satisfied that the privacy of individual students and staff would not be compromised and the necessary consents have been obtained.

“Following a formal complaint made at the end of May 2018 in relation to a potential breach of the University’s Dignity and Respect Policy, which applies to all students and staff, a formal investigation began at the beginning of June and was concluded at the end of July. The investigation was conducted by a senior academic from another University Department with professional support from our Human Resources team. The investigation panel considered written and oral statements, taking evidence from the complainant, the subject of the complaint and a number of others.

“The conclusion reached was that though there had been no malicious intent, the formal complaint should be upheld. Having considered the range of options available to the university and the evidence provided to the investigation panel, disciplinary action was taken and formally communicated to the subject of the complaint.

“An oral warning was given as to future conduct. Changes have been agreed to supervisory arrangements for current students which will apply to future students.”


It appears from this that Longrich will still be allowed to supervise students even if some arrangements to protect them have been made (that is not entirely clear.) Will those arrangements be as effective as necessary? Have the students been warned about his behavior and given the choice of switching to other labs?

I do not yet have the answer to those questions, but I am not the only reporter looking into this. All we journalists can do is shine a light at misconduct; it's up to the scientific community to do something about what our reporting reveals.

Update Sept 3: I am told by the communications officer of the Leverhulme Trust, from which Longrich is the recipient of a large grant through the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, that they are now aware of the bullying allegations and are investigating. Longrich is the holder of a Research Leadership Award from the Trust in the amount of 998,815 British pounds.

Update Sept 4: In discussions with more sources for this story, three important facts have emerged. First is that some of Longrich's new students (there are at least three) have already arrived in Bath and begun working in his lab, even though the new term does not officially begin until October 1. He reportedly asked them to come early, or required them to. Second, the formal complaint which the university investigated (see above) involved several students and not just one. Third, the main targets of the alleged bullying were women.

Update Sept 7: I have asked the University of Bath press office (Media Manager Chris Melvin) whether the incoming graduate students, some of whom have already arrived, were told that the university upheld a complaint of bullying against Longrich. After two days I do not have a response. Will update again once I do.

Breaking news Sept 18: I am now told by the Leverhulme Trust that Longrich has lost his nearly 1 million pound Research Leadership Award (which normally covers 4-5 years) but that his current doctoral students "will not be disadvantaged by this." That presumably means the university has made alternative arrangements for their supervision; will update as I learn more. Hoping that Science and Nature will now do the coverage of this they should have before. Update: Glad to see that Nature News has now covered the story and look forward to others doing so as well.

Sept 19: University of Bath outlines how Longrich's current students will be protected. What will Longrich's own fate be?

A big question in this episode has been what the university is doing, or will do, to protect and help students who have come into Longrich's lab this fall. The good news is that the Leverhulme Trust will continue to support those students financially, according to their statement yesterday and confirmation from the university today (see below.) A large portion of Longrich's 998,815 pound Research Leadership Award was intended for support of students and postdocs, and that will apparently continue. It also appears that students will be able to choose new supervisors if they wish to. (Addition 6 October 2018: A source in Longrich's department tells me that the students have received a significant amount of help and support from other faculty to make sure they are able to pursue their studies and their careers. That is good news.)

As for Longrich: Sources in the scientific community tell me that the big grant was a major boost for Bath's Milner Centre for Evolution, which has just been inaugurated, and with which Longrich is prominently affiliated. With his grant pulled and the possible loss of students and postdocs, what is Longrich's future at Bath (or anywhere else?) Without severe consequences for misconduct, the culture will not change, even if the careers of individual abusers sometimes come to an end (most of Longrich's bullying victims were reportedly women.) I will continue to report on this important case.

Here is the statement today from a university spokesperson:

“We respect this decision by the Leverhulme Trust and appreciate the fact they will continue to support the existing PhD students.

“All staff and students have a right to be treated, and have an obligation to treat others, with dignity and respect. The University has previously issued a statement about the result of a disciplinary hearing. We have been supporting students and staff throughout this period.

"All affected students have had one-to-one meetings with senior staff where alternative supervisory arrangements have been discussed.”