ASHG Adds Professional Conduct Standards to Code of Ethics

September 2019

As part of the Society’s commitment to advance genetics and genomics research and support our diverse and active community, ASHG has a had a Code of Ethics for many years. In May 2019, the Board of Directors voted unanimously to add new Professional Conduct standards to the Code of Ethics. The addition affirms the Society’s intent to foster a welcoming and productive environment where research can thrive, and specifically clarifies that harassment of any kind is unwelcome and unacceptable by those engaging in the Society’s activities.

The Board also voted to continue and expand the functions of its Professional Conduct Working Group, which will develop proposals for how to implement these standards for Society activities. The Working Group will also review any allegations of misconduct and undertake actions within its scope or propose actions for the Board’s consideration and vote. These steps follow the Board’s creation of the ASHG Annual Meeting Code of Conduct that was introduced in 2018, and the Society’s decision to join the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM, an overarching group of more than 100 scientific and medical societies.

“As an organization committed to contributing to the advancement of genetics and genomics science, we believe strongly that members of the Society should exhibit appropriate professional conduct in their interactions with members of our community,” said Leslie Biesecker, ASHG President. “Unequivocally, harassment—sexual or otherwise—is antithetical to a healthy scientific enterprise, and we codify that in the updated Code of Ethics.”

Created in 2006 and last updated in 2017, the previous ASHG Code of Ethics already highlighted the advancement of science, integrity, privacy, and transparency, and those expectations remain in place. Additionally, the Annual Meeting professional conduct guidelines were received well in 2018 and provided a safe outlet for reporting misconduct. Those resources will continue in 2019, and we have recently added a toll-free hotline (844-519-9731) to contact should any participant feel that the code has been violated during the Meeting.

Nationally and globally, the issue of sexual and other harassment in STEMM fields has moved to the forefront for collective attention and action. In 2018, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Math issued Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture and Consequences in Academic Science, Engineering and Math. The report details the many facets of the problem and, among many entities it said must be involved, it noted scientific societies play a unique and important role in setting tone and expectations for conduct.

Since that time, the Societies Consortium has also engaged the academic medical community on these issues, with the American Association of Medical Colleges playing a catalytic role in that organization. The National Academies has also established a working group for academic institutions working to address these behaviors, and the National Institutes of Health is expanding its policies and procedures on such allegations. ASHG has also supported proposed legislation in both the U.S. House and Senate that would require scientific agencies to address the problem with more consistent rigor and intensity.

Professional Conduct Expectations
The new approved ASHG Code of Ethics says in full:

ASHG seeks to foster a welcoming and productive environment where research can thrive. Harassment— sexual or otherwise—is antithetical to a healthy scientific enterprise. Members of the Society should exhibit appropriate professional conduct in their interactions with all individuals whom they encounter in connection with their professional roles, including colleagues, students, researchers, laboratory and support staff, grantors, administrators, and others in the scientific community; non-members of the Society involved in Society activities must also exhibit professional conduct in connection with those activities. ASHG expects members, Annual Meeting attendees, and others involved in Society activities to adhere to professional conduct expectations. Inappropriate professional behaviors include but are not limited to:

  • Discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, religion, disability, marital status, or other legally protected characteristics, and harassment or disparagement based on gender or other protected characteristics;
  • Physical contact that is uninvited and, in the situation, inappropriate, and unwelcome or coercive sexual attention;
  • Intimidation, stalking, abusive, or threatening behavior;
  • Yelling at or personally insulting colleagues or others in the scientific community, verbally or physically;
  • Retaliation against individuals who raise conduct concerns.

The Society reserves the right to assess whether an individual’s behavior is consistent with these conduct expectations and, based on that assessment, the right to bestow, deny, revoke or limit participation in Society-sponsored activities or eligibility for membership or honors. The Society may restrict or revoke eligibility to attend or participate in any ASHG-sponsored events or forums; receive or hold honors and awards; hold Society service and volunteer roles; receive grants or fellowships; hold membership; and other activity identified by the Board. Any action taken against an individual for violation of this Code shall be in accordance with Society policies and procedures and other governing documents.

Implementation of these Expectations

The Society already has established policies and procedures to address allegations in the context of the Annual Meeting. As the Society works to apply these expectations to various facets of Society engagement, additional policies and procedures will be announced and posted publicly on the website.

“ASHG is committed to advancing genetics and genomics research and supporting an engaged and diverse community in doing so,” said Dr. Biesecker. “We take seriously our efforts to set that expectation and responsibly address allegations through clear policies and procedures. Together, we can make progress in our own field and participate in larger efforts across science and medicine on this important issue. We must make clear that progress in science and medicine depends on the participation of all, and harassment marginalizes and risks losing the great minds and talents that we need to realize the benefits of genetics and genomics research.”

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