For all researchers, scientific integrity is the highest good, and the one most worthy of protection. The Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences published a new code of conduct for scientific integrity in May¹. It lists and describes all the things we researchers should not do, including some obvious ones, like falsifying data or incorrectly assigning authorship. I was struck by one point in particular in the section on scientific misconduct in collaborative projects, a point the Academies of Arts and Sciences defines as misconduct: “Displaying any form of harassment or discrimination, especially when based on cultural, socio-demographic, or other personal characteristics or professional backgrounds.”
Of course, the most important argument why researchers shouldn’t discriminate or harass each other is obvious: because no one should. But there’s another reason why we ought to pay special attention to this in our scientific endeavours and in our institutions: discrimination and harassment are simply a complete waste of a wide range of resources.
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An impact on many
Preventing discrimination and harassment within an organisation is time-consuming and requires energy. But even more energy is needed by those affected and the members of the institutions where cases of discrimination occur. This can be very stressful for everybody and may lead to people being unable to study or do their actual jobs.
Clearly, everyone involved would be much better off devoting those resources to their core tasks in their institutions. The cost and effort as well as any loss become greater the more specialised the functions of the people concerned, the more senior their position, and the longer they have worked for an institution. Also, let’s not forget: minorities are particularly at risk.
And that brings me to my second point: people who experience or witness discrimination and harassment may decide against pursuing academic studies or careers. As a result, Switzerland may lose highly talented researchers for the wrong reasons. This is a waste of potential. We need to create an atmosphere in which researchers can develop their potential freely and without fear.
On the foundations of research and reputation
Third, every university, every area of research is much more than just a place where people do scientific work. Whenever people are discriminated against and harassed, this compromises an institution’s norms and culture and threatens to break them down entirely. It compromises the ethical foundation without which we cannot conduct our research. The Academies of Arts and Sciences are therefore right, in my view, to relate individual integrity directly to integrity in research. One is simply not possible without the other.
Fourth: reputation. This is an almost inestimable resource that, in my opinion, must be handled very carefully. An academic institution’s reputation is essential to its ability to function effectively, for several reasons. One is that in Switzerland, universities and research institutions are mainly financed by taxpayers. The Swiss Parliament has called on the ETH Domain to actively combat discrimination and harassment, and we should take this demand very seriously. Another reason is that loss of reputation due to incidents of discrimination and harassment also reduces an institution’s attractiveness and may even hamper its ability to acquire external funding. For example, the European Research Council (ERC) has stated its intention to address gender issues during visits to ERC project leaders and their institutions.²
Money is a factor too
And of course the fifth point, which is obvious when we talk about resources: cases of discrimination and harassment cost institutions an incredible amount of money – legal fees, procedural costs, compensation for the affected persons, and much more. Prevention, again, is undoubtedly more cost-effective and less destructive to individuals and the institution than dealing with the consequences of discrimination and harassment. Again, we have a responsibility to the taxpayers. I assume that they entrust us with their money so that we will invest it in research, teaching and technology transfer, not in lawsuits and law firms.
There’s a lot to do, so let’s get to work
What can we do about this waste? An important step in finding solutions is to recognise how big the problem is. In July 2020, EPFL published the Commission’s report on the status of women professors.³ Important issues such as salary, hiring, but also the culture of the institution were analysed and measures proposed. A comparable and comprehensive study has not yet been conducted at ETH Zurich. Nevertheless, the university is to be commended for numerous steps it has taken to improve diversity and proactively combat discrimination and harassment. This includes three decades of support for the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity (Equal) and the recent appointment of a Vice President for Personnel Development and Leadership.
There is still an incredible amount of work to be done to effectively combat discrimination and harassment, especially against women, in our institutions. But many people are already taking action. I would like to make special mention of a group called “500 Women Scientists”, with pods in Zurich and Fribourg-Bern, which is committed to establishing a safe and independent platform for complaints.⁴ This group, along with many other internal and external organisations⁵, also serves as a resource. Universities, institutions and the ETH Domain could use it to better collaborate and to combat discrimination and harassment even more effectively and sustainably. Let’s use our resources, not waste them.