Refereeing and Bullies

We’ve heard a lot about bullying at the heart of government in recent days. One defence of the behaviour of the former Chief Whip is that it used to be worse, much worse. That is of course a line one hears about predatory behaviour in academia. What was once regarded as ‘normal’, most certainly isn’t now. But it still goes on and, as today’s report for OfS indicates, universities continue to struggle to put in place appropriate mechanisms to deal with sexual harassment.

In Government, as in academia, there are power imbalances to worry about when considering making a complaint about behaviour. In a recent survey of violence (broadly defined and not just literal violence) on campus, what seemed to me telling (and depressing) in the findings was the low proportion of those who were subjected to this violence who actually reported it. Many were worried about retaliation by the perpetrator or that their studies/research would be terminated, as well as realistically worrying that going through due process might be a deeply unpleasant experience. That is why I believe it is so important, as I’ve written before, that those observing incidents – be they incidents of bullying, belittling, or actual physical aggression or sexual harassment  – should be willing to take action and not just leave it to the victim. Too often it is easier to look the other way, even if an observer doesn’t go quite so far as to side with the aggressor.

At what point does it become safe to act? How far up the ladder does one have to go before it ceases to feel potentially dangerous to call someone out? I’m not sure I know the answer to that. But, even in the more modest arena of filing a referee’s report, I was struck by the comment I saw on Twitter this week bringing home the trepidation which can strike even senior academics when faced with having to confront, virtually, a ‘powerful man’ in their research field. The situation arose because a journal was asking the individual to sign their name to a critical referee’s report, and the referee was nervous in case of ‘repercussions’. This is desperately sad. As academics we should not be in a situation where we feel worried about doing our professional jobs properly in case of inappropriate responses from those with power. The person who put this tweet out is already a member of their national academy, so not exactly junior. Nevertheless, as I wrote a short while ago, mid-career was exactly the moment I found things toughest, so I understand their anxieties. Power imbalances can still feel very real.

That tweet reminded me of a situation I once faced when still a junior lecturer. I had refereed a paper by a Nobel Prize winner in my field, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, and I was convinced he was wrong although his approach (theoretical) was very interesting. I had experimental evidence which contradicted him, although it hadn’t yet been published, so it was not altogether easy to refute his position in my report. After I had submitted it, I discovered he was visiting Cambridge and I had a slot to talk with him. At that point I could have either discussed his ideas in a totally neutral way, without letting on that I had seen the preprint and indeed had commented on it, or I could say upfront that I was the referee. With some nervousness, I chose the latter path, because anything else would have seemed somewhat dishonest.

At the time I did not know De Gennes at all well, but in later years it became very clear to me that he  was not the sort of man who needed to put others down to feed his self-importance. (He was also a great supporter of women in science.) When I set out my position, and with the unpublished electron micrographs to hand to bolster my case, we simply had a really interesting discussion. There wasn’t a hint of a refusal to accept my views as valid, or a need to show his superiority to a mere junior like me who was contradicting him. I felt relieved and also reassured that scientists, at such different points in their life, could sensibly discuss their different viewpoints. It could, of course, have all gone wrong. I did not know him well enough to be sure in advance I wasn’t going to put myself in an unpleasant situation.

Another occasion where refereeing anonymously took me into strange territory was when I refereed a grant from Tom McLeish, now sadly desperately ill. As a referee I wrote that his experimental programme would be interesting but could not work on the polymer he had selected (PMMA, which would have disintegrated in the electron microscopy experiments he was planning), but should work on a different one (polystyrene). A short while later Tom contacted me to ask for my advice, to check whether the referee was right in what they said. With a straight face I said I was sure they were right. This was a long time ago, when applicants were allowed not only to respond to referees but, at least in this case, to change their programme to accord with what the referee said. Tom duly got the grant and set about his revised set of experiments.

That could have been the end of the story, and I had certainly forgotten all about it until I heard Tom talking about his research in the conference bar, telling his circle how helpful I’d been to him in confirming the tiresome referee had indeed been right in what they’d said. At that point I had to tell him that I had been the referee. Much mirth all round ensued.

Those two personal anecdotes indicate that I have been, as I have frequently said, lucky in many of my interactions with fellow scientists. I believe both episodes illustrate how we would like exchanges around refereeing to take place, without the anxieties expressed by the tweet I mentioned earlier. But the reality is, bullies are out there and some people – however senior and in no need for more status – do feel that others need to suck up to them, and a critical referee’s report requires retaliation. Sadly, the stories coming out of Harvard about Sheila Jasanoff’s alleged behaviour in the Science and Technology Studies program which she leads there reinforce the idea that disagreeing with some academics may be profoundly dangerous for one’s career and mental wellbeing. Bullies lurk. Taking risks is not always a game worth playing, however much science should be objective and not about vendettas or power. Academia remains peppered with unsavoury characters who get far on bad behaviour and it seems institutions are not good at counteracting such behaviour.




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