AAS Ethics Investigations

In a previous post I laid out my feedback to the AAS on its new draft Code of Ethics.  I’m glad the AAS is addressing this, and especially glad that they are engaging the membership to craft a strong code that will improve our society.

My second concern in that piece was that the new investigative and punitive powers this policy gives the AAS seemed in need of revision (for instance a single person appoints the entire committee)  I wrote that it would help to know that similar committees in allied field’s professional societies work well, and have restricted their most vigorous efforts to severe cases, held a sense of proportion in their actions, and acted primarily to protect the powerless.

To satisfy my curiosity, I checked some of astronomy’s allied fields’ professional societies to see if any have standing committees charged with investigating, adjudicating, and punishing ethical breaches, including sexual harassment.

I could not find any.  The American Physical Society and American Chemical Society don’t seem to have any bodies that handle adjudication of ethical breaches.  Indeed, the APS doesn’t seem to address non-scientific misconduct (like harassment) at all, having, at most, a statement on treatment of subordinates.  In contrast, I am proud that the AAS is leading on this.

The ACS has a more thorough ethics program, with a committee whose job is to educate and provide resources for the community.  I would like to see the AAS do this as well.

But in my quick search I couldn’t find any body at ACS responsible for investigations of wrongdoing (the Ethics Committee itself serves as a resource “but not as an adjudication body”.)

The American Geophysical Union’s Ethics Committee was the closest to an exception.  It provides an easy-to-find link for people to submit complaints of violations, and serves to investigate allegations.  Some features of this committee (and what I like about them in parentheses):

  • The chair of the committee determines which allegations to bring to the full committee (discretion to investigate)
  • The committee is composed of at least one member from committees responsible for outreach, meetings, and publications, and one AGU editor in chief, one editors, and one associate editor. Additional members can be added as appropriate for specific allegations (guaranteed broad representation and appropriate expertise on the committee)
  • Members are appointed by their respective committees, in consultation with AGU leadership (distribution of power)
  • It is not a standing committee; it convenes only as needed (it is not their job to go find work to do)
  • The committee’s recommendations at the end of an investigation go to the AGU board of directors, which decides punishment. (separation of powers)

I find many features of this setup appealing, and indeed many of them are in the current version of the Code of Ethics.  Of course, its possible that this model doesn’t work well, or is missing important features that would be important for the AAS to include. I encourage the AAS Ethics Task Force to contact the AGU (including those who have brought complaints to the AGU Ethics Committee) see how well it works, and to consider whether to adopt components of this model in the AAS Code of Ethics.

Whether they agree with me or not, I encourage all AAS members to give their feedback to the AAS here.

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