Miller: University should safeguard researchers’ independence

Criticism is part of science — indeed, science couldn’t move forward without it — but sometimes that criticism can be brutal. Assistant Professor of the Practice of Behavioral and Social Sciences Lisa Littman is getting a taste of that right now in the reaction to her paper on rapid-onset gender dysphoria. Wednesday’s article in The Herald detailed some of this criticism, which included claims that Littman’s study was “flat-out bad research,” that it was “incredibly dangerous” and that it would “do a lot of damage” to trans youth and the LGBTQ+ community.

Some of these reactions are to be expected and reflect the workings of the scientific process. A study exploring the origins of sexual self-identity, whatever its findings, is bound to provoke strong reactions and pushback from those who are skeptical. Detailed critical analysis of her methodology, including the fact that she relied on surveys of parents rather than interviews with the youth themselves, is clearly called for, and the journal that published it has said as much. This, too, is part of the scientific process. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, as the saying goes, and that clearly applies to research on human sexual identity. Littman’s provocative study is getting plenty of critical attention, and that’s a good thing.

I wish I could say the same for Brown’s institutional reaction to such criticism. In frank terms, it has been nothing short of shameful. One would expect a university devoted to open inquiry and academic freedom to vigorously defend the independence of its researchers, and to support their efforts to investigate even the most controversial topics. Instead, Brown cowered.  It removed references to Littman’s paper from its “news distribution” web sites, and then published a statement from Dean Bess Marcus of the School of Public Health that implicitly undercut the work of its own researcher. While Marcus’ letter contained fine words regarding academic freedom, it simultaneously implied that Littman had not properly listened “to multiple perspectives” or recognized the “limitations” of her work. The same letter indicated that Marcus would organize “a panel of experts to present the latest research in this area and to define directions for future work to optimize health in transgender communities.”

While no one could argue with the goal of optimizing health in such communities, there is little doubt that such a panel would be organized in a way to explicitly challenge the work of this junior faculty member, reject her methodology and conclusions and even undermine her decision to investigate the topic of gender dysphoria itself. Marcus went further, citing concerns from members of the Brown community that “conclusions of the study could be used to discredit the efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate perspectives of members of the transgender community.” What she did not explain is why a speculative fear of how research findings could be used by unnamed individuals should play any role in determining the academic merit of Littman’s work.

These actions send a very clear message to every member of the research community at Brown. If your investigation engenders substantial social criticism from stakeholders, whether inside or outside of the University community, Brown will run and hide. It will bury your research findings, surrender to the most vocal of your critics and then call in “experts” to wash its hands of the whole affair.

As Jeffrey Flier, former Dean of Harvard Medical School, wrote in a recent opinion piece, the stakes are very high for the University at this point. “Its leaders must not allow any single politically charged issue ­— including gender dysphoria — from becoming the thin edge of a wedge that gradually undermines our precious, hard-won academic freedoms.”

To be clear, I am not calling for Brown to defend the specific work in question. Littman’s study may well be poorly designed, methodologically flawed or incorrectly interpreted. That will be for the larger scientific community to decide, and decide it will. But what Brown must do is to affirm the right of its researchers to take on the most difficult questions in science and society and to stand up for their independence when challenged. This it has failed to do, undercutting the work of every researcher at this institution. On this point I stand with Littman, and I hope the rest of our research community will do the same.

Ken Miller ’70 P’02 is a professor of biology and can be reached at kenneth_miller@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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