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.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Sexual harassment investigation at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand

Wits campus
For the past several months I have been tracking an investigation by the university into allegations of sexual harassment against three scientists affiliated with Wits (as it is often called.) The university has completed its investigation and the results have been conveyed to me today by Shirona Patel, Wits' spokesperson.

I personally looked into the allegations against two of the individuals who were investigated, talking to multiple witnesses, and found them to be credible. Although the university did not name the individuals, I am doing so below.

Michael Balter


The University’s Gender Equity Office (GEO) led an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment involving three individuals associated with the palaeosciences. The GEO was unable to find any recent sexual harassment allegations or incidents involving the three individuals. However, in the case of two individuals, there is evidence that they may have in the past been involved in inappropriate or unwelcome behaviour. At the time of the alleged incidents, there were no University policies or regulations in place reproaching such behaviour and the general knowledge and understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment was less prevalent. Despite this, the GEO has recommended that both individuals be issued with letters advising them that such behaviour is no longer tolerated at the institution, in line with the University’s current progressive gender equity policies.  

However, the GEO has also suggested that it may be necessary to conduct a further inquiry into the extent of sexual harassment in the palaeosciences and recommends that the Faculty undertakes extensive work to make the scientific environment welcoming to all. It further recommends that an internal ethics code be developed or strengthened within the Faculty. The University’s fieldwork policy has already been reviewed and strengthened and was recently passed by the University’s Council. It is in the process of being implemented.

Update and correction:

The two who were given warnings are Rob Blumenschine of Rutgers University and Ron Clarke of Wits. The third was Steven Churchill of Duke University. Some details based on my own reporting:

Rob Blumenschine: During my investigation for Science of the Brian Richmond case at the American Museum of Natural History, several women who had worked with Blumenschine in earlier days told me stories of being personally harassed by him. I did not follow up on these reports, nor do an investigation of Blumenschine, but found the allegations credible given the reputations of the women who told me about it.

Ron Clarke: During my investigation of the Richmond case, three women told me they had been harassed by Clarke on the Wits campus in South Africa. Two of them were willing to discuss their allegations in detail. I find their stories to be credible.

Steven Churchill: While investigating the Richmond case, numerous anthropologists told me that Churchill had been disciplined in earlier days for at least one inappropriate relationship with a student. I did not investigate those claims at the time although they were widely known in the anthropology community. More recently, however, sources approached me who felt that Churchill had not been adequately disciplined by Duke for that alleged behavior. I began to investigate and found a number of sources, currently at Duke and no longer there, who gave me details. The essence of the allegations was that Churchill had engaged in a series of inappropriate relationships with students (mostly undergraduates) during the 1990s, and into the 2000s. As a result of complaints, he was lightly disciplined in about 2007. His position as chair of the evolutionary anthropology department at Duke was not renewed, and according to sources, he was put on paid leave for a semester. He then returned to Duke.

Recently sources at Duke told me that there had been, and still was, concern among numerous colleagues that Churchill's punishment had been too light and that the university had swept it under the rug.

Also recently, this past history was made known to Lee Berger's team in South Africa, with which Churchill is associated. According to multiple sources, Churchill was required to make full disclosure to the team so that team members would be aware. These sources indicate that Churchill apologized and claimed that he had not behaved in such a way since the original episode at Duke.

However, two sources indicated to me that more recently, ie within the last 5 years or so, Churchill did engage in behavior in South Africa that could be interpreted as sexual harassment. No complaints were made about this behavior at the time, nor since.

Update August 21

As some may know, Wits has been grappling with cases of sexual misconduct over the past few years, and several faculty members in various academic fields have been fired for violating the university's "zero tolerance" policy. Today a source brought to my attention another situation close to anthropology home base, however, that of a Wits lecturer in archaeology, Geoffrey Blundell, who allegedly had an inappropriate relationship with a student. The original report in the university newspaper did not name Blondell, but the parties were named in a public decision by South Africa's Press Council after complaints about the article (the Council dismissed most but not all of the complaints.) This episode apparently lead to a new policy by Wits prohibiting such relationships between faculty and students. This is an increasing trend in US universities as well, as the power imbalances in such relationships--which makes actual consent difficult if not impossible--becomes more widely recognized.

A case of bullying in the UK?

Word also reaches us that the University of Bath has investigated charges of bullying students and postdocs by paleontologist Nick Longrich. A university spokesperson released the following statement:

“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.”

I will have updates on this developing story as they are available.