Scientists share MIT ‘disobedience’ award for #MeToo advocacy

Neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin of Vanderbilt University in Nashville was honored for founding #MeTooSTEM.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center

The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge today honored two women who have played leading roles in advancing the #MeToo movement within science by awarding them, along with one other #MeToo advocate, its edgy, $250,000 “Disobedience Award.”

BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, will share the prize with biologist Sherry Marts and #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke. The Disobedience Award, now in its second year, is funded by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman to honor people or groups “who engage in ethical, nonviolent acts of disobedience in service of society.” Hoffman has said he wanted to “recognize the people who help us look in the mirror and see who our better selves could be.”

McLaughlin—better known to her Twitter followers as @McLNeuro—will collect one-third of the prize money for speaking out against sexual harassment in science. Angered by a Science article describing allegations of sexual harassment against cancer scientist Inder Verma, who has since resigned from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, McLaughlin in May launched a petition urging the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to eject proven harassers from lifetime memberships in the prestigious academies. NASEM leaders soon said they would explore whether and how they might do so. They say full votes of their memberships are needed for change.

She also targeted AAAS, publisher of ScienceInsider, with an online petition demanding that the organization oust AAAS fellows who are proved to be sexual harassers. AAAS’s governing council in September adopted a policy allowing that. McLaughlin also succeeded earlier this year in getting the website RateMyProfessors.com to drop its “hotness” category, formerly designated by a red chili pepper.

McLaughlin, who founded the group #MeTooSTEM, does not pull punches in calling out known and alleged harassers, usually on Twitter, and has made enemies as her profile has risen; she recently received a package of excrement via FedEx. “This award provides great moral clarity on what is right,” she told ScienceInsider. “It says that doing this, shamelessly making campuses and conferences safer, puts you on the right side of history.” (At its annual meeting earlier this month, the Society for Neuroscience also honored McLaughlin for her advocacy on behalf of women in science, technology, engineering, and math.)

Marts, the other scientist honored, left science after enduring sexual harassment while completing a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Marts’s life since Duke has included a 10-year stint as vice president for scientific affairs at the Society for Women’s Health Research in Washington, D.C. More recently, she has been a consultant advising nonprofits how to address sexual harassment at meetings and conferences. She also helped the American Geophysical Union adapt its code of conduct to define sexual harassment as scientific misconduct—a move that made it a leader among scientific organizations. “I’m thrilled,” Marts told ScienceInsider. “I owe a huge debt to … the scientific society executives who are willing to admit they have a problem and to face it head-on.”

Another scientist was among four runners-up for the award, each of whom received $10,000. In 2017, Deborah Swackhamer, an environmental chemist, was ousted as chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Board of Scientific Counselors after refusing senior EPA officials’ requests that she alter remarks she had prepared for testimony to Congress.

The award winners were chosen by a panel of 11 judges that included scientists such as MIT neuroscientist Ed Boyden.

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