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Universities Urged to ‘Do More’ to Combat Harassment at Remote Sites

When Angela Olinto, dean of the Physical Sciences Division at the University of Chicago (UC), heard about a report cataloging what one member of Congress termed a “rampant culture of sexual harassment and assault in the remote research environment of Antarctica,” a program overseen by the National Science Foundation (NSF), she queried UC researchers to share their experiences.

“Unfortunately, they were not surprised by the report findings,” said Olinto, who was among those testifying before the Science and Technology Committee during its last full hearing in the 117th Congress, “Building a Safer Antarctic Research Environment.”[1] It was also the last chaired by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who retired after 30 years in the House; she also served on the science committee throughout her entire tenure.

In her written testimony, Olinto said UC personnel reported that the “remote sites and very small number of women throughout the Antarctic continent made it particularly difficult for women in general” and spoke of a “culture where reports of harassment were not taken seriously,” as was detailed in NSF’s report, Sexual Assault/Harassment Prevention and Response.[2]

Olinto noted that UC “and many other institutions have led observatories at the pole to significantly advance the fields of cosmology and astrophysics. Today, our researchers operate the powerful South Pole telescope with its third-generation camera and are part of the impressive IceCube Neutrino Observatory.”

“We agree with the recommendations [for NSF] to improve communications, increase engagement, enhance education and training, strengthen reporting infrastructure and accountability, provide support to victims and probe more deeply into policies and mechanisms aimed at prevention,” as outlined in the report, Olinto testified.

But “universities and research teams also need to do more,” she said.

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