The recent Atul Johri sexual abuse case has enraged scientists, across the country, who have now signed a letter in solidarity with the student complainants in the case.

As many as 165 scientists have signed the letter which calls out the behaviour of some men maligning research in India, especially its higher echelons.

The scientists stand against Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Life Sciences professor Johri, who the eight complainants have accused of passing sexually coloured comments and unwanted advances.

“We call upon Indian scientists and women scientists in particular, to support the young complainants’ quest for justice, and to further this effort to publicly acknowledge and spread awareness on this extremely serious issue,” the letter stated.

The scientists have suggested that the fraternity shouldn’t just condemn such acts but also invite black-listing from serving on scientific committees, receiving funding, awards and election to academies

Apart from scientists from JNU, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the National Centre for Biological Sciences, the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science have also participated in the cause.

Aim to bring awareness

“The aim of the letter is to bring awareness among scientists about the problems faced by some women scientists at academic institutions and to show solidarity with women faculty/students who garner courage to speak out and often feel pressure to withdraw complaint (as is the case at hand),” Riddhi Shah from JNU’s School of Physical Sciences told PTI.

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Shah said that while there isn’t factual data on the frequency of harassment in labs, “but from my past experience being on a women cell, I do know that it does happen in some labs as students are especially vulnerable when they work for research for long hours, especially at night”.

Most signatories to the statement, Shah added, “do not know these students but want to show solidarity and help them”.

That the alleged incidents span several years and multiple victims, all students/project employees, points to a pattern that appears to be specific to the nature of working conditions for women in scientific labs in India

A retired scientist from JNU’s School of Life Science added, “I hope that this movement will succeed in restoring a conducive environment to continue teaching and research activities by women in the science labs.”

On the allegations of sexual harassment on Johri, she said, “The administration should come forward to punish such elements in the system and take stern action against him. JNU is a well acclaimed institution which has maintained a high standard of research and teaching. Therefore, it is very important that we should never encourage these social evils who are trying to spoil the academic environment.”

Concern over authority sructure

The petition raises concern over the authority structure in scientific organisations which makes itself particularly ‘perilous to women’.

“That the alleged incidents span several years and multiple victims, all students/project employees, points to a pattern that appears to be specific to the nature of working conditions for women in scientific labs in India,” said the scientists

They stated in the letter how it would make for an oversimplification of the case if we say that this is a standalone case while justifying the fact that not every scientific establishment is unsafe for women at work.

The absence of women in decision making bodies, their lack of adequate representation in committees and academies all come together to create an environment in which women and their concerns all appear marginal to the “serious business” of the Scientific Enterprise, it said.

Lastly, it asked the Indian scientific industry to wake up to gender discriminatory issues and “give up its business-as-usual attitude. It is also time to hear from the Indian science academies and funding bodies clear policies of inclusion and representation,” the letter stated.

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