Many young scientists dream of their first trip to a remote research site — who wouldn't want to hang out with chimps like Jane Goodall, or sail to the Galapagos like Charles Darwin, exploring the world and advancing science?
But for many scientists, field research can endanger their health and safety.
In a survey of scientists engaged in field research, the majority — 64 percent — said they had personally experienced sexual harassment while at a field site, and 22 percent reported being the victim of sexual assault.
Most of the people reporting harassment or assault were women, and the vast majority were still students or postdocs.
And for female victims, the perpetrator was more likely to be a superior, not a peer. "This is happening to them when they are trainees, when they are most vulnerable within the academic hierarchy," says evolutionary biologist Katie Hinde, an author on the study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE. Hinde and her colleagues say this could be a factor in the large number of women who enter scientific fields but don't continue.
A total of 666 scientists, primarily in the fields of anthropology and archaeology, completed the voluntary Internet survey. And while the results do not reflect the true prevalence of sexual abuse in field research — this type of survey is not designed to measure that — the numbers are still alarming.
While sexual violence can occur in all workplaces — roughly 50 percent of women report experiencing sexual harassment at some point in their careers — Hinde says the particular nature of field sites, where researchers are far from home, and the lines between work life and personal life are blurred, may make them more prone to this type of wrongdoing.
But in the survey, fewer than half of respondents recalled ever having encountered a code of conduct or sexual harassment policy at their field sites.
"People are being told 'what happens in the field stays in the field,' " says biological anthropologist Kathryn Clancy, who led the survey team.
Many academic sciences have a problem retaining women. Though they enter the disciplines in high numbers, many leave before they reach the postdoctorate or professor level. The lack of role models and mentors and professional demands that leave little time for family life have been cited as reasons.
"One of the things that is not discussed out loud very much is how sexual harassment and sexual assault play into this problem," says Hinde.
Psychologist Rebecca Campbell, who studies the effect of sexual harassment on communities, says that while all workplace harassment is harmful, it can be particularly damaging when coming from a superior.
She also says these findings should be incorporated into the broader discussion about campus sexual harassment and violence.
"The cultural narrative is that this is two drunk college kids in a dorm room, and we are seeing now that sexual assault is occurring as part of the core curriculum," says Campbell.
While both Hinde and Clancy say that it was difficult to parse so many stories of wrongdoing perpetrated by and against their colleagues, they hope the results spur scientific communities to come together in search of a solution.
"As horrifying as this data is, I'm really excited to have it out there," says Clancy. "Every person who has had this experience will be validated and know there are others out there who have their back. If this keeps just one more woman in science, it is absolutely worth it."
July 21, 2014 A previous version of this story was illustrated with a file picture of an archaeological site in the United Kingdom. NPR did not intend to suggest that there are links between the content of this story and this archaeological site or the institution that organizes it.