For an ill-fated science cruise, a sea of allegations

A marine science trip devolved into competing claims of discrimination — and underscored issues in fieldwork

By Mark Harris

Published March 25, 2022 8:15AM (EDT)

The RV Thomas G. Thompson, a research vessel owned and operated by the University of Washington. (Mark Harris for Undark)
The RV Thomas G. Thompson, a research vessel owned and operated by the University of Washington. (Mark Harris for Undark)

This article originally appeared on Undark.

The RV Thomas G. Thompson was in turmoil long before the arrival of the albatross. On Feb. 21, 2019, the University of Washington research vessel had embarked on a five-week-long cruise in the Indian Ocean to explore an undersea plateau called the Marion Rise, using a sophisticated gravity sensor, underwater drones, and old-fashioned dredges.

But shortly after setting sail from Durban, South Africa, with 32 scientists, 21 crew members, and three marine technicians, one scientist fell ill and needed an emergency medical evacuation back to land. The voyage — which was partially funded by the National Science Foundation and, like many U.S. research cruises, involved a university-operated ship and a scientific team from a number of institutions, coordinated by a national organization — lost four days before it had dropped a single dredge or drone. Its mission was further delayed due to disagreements between the geologists and crew on how to best dredge the ocean floor for rocks.

So, the omens weren't good on the morning of March 11, when the cruise's chief scientist, Henry Dick, ducked under safety tape on the deck to take photos of an albatross near the ship, which had finally begun its dredging 10 days before. After taking his snaps, Dick turned to encounter a female technician who "yelled at him disrespectfully to get off the deck," according to two lawsuits he would later file — one against the University of Washington and another against his employer, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, or WHOI, based on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The suits followed disciplinary actions taken against Dick after complaints about his behavior were filed by members of the Thompson crew.

According to Dick's Massachusetts lawsuit, the Thompson's captain did not want unnecessary personnel on the aft deck while a dredge was being winched up from the sea floor more than a mile below — a process that could take an hour or more. Anyone working there was also required to wear a hard hat and life vest. But Dick, a geologist at WHOI and veteran of dozens of science cruises, argued that he believed himself safe without protective equipment because the ocean was calm and the massive dredge would not be hauled out for, he thought, at least another 15 minutes.

The female technician, who, like almost all the crew, worked for the University of Washington, then had a heated confrontation with Dick. In a statement provided to the university's investigation, the technician says Dick berated her and used aggressive body language. "I just want a picture of the birds," she reported his saying to her. Dick then threatened to give the cruise a poor evaluation with the coordinating body for marine science, according to the technician. In her words to a supervisor shortly after the incident, she said Dick planned to give the journey "a one-star Yelp review."

On another occasion, according to the University of Washington investigation, a witness heard Dick refer to the same technician as "a rude bitch." Accounts differ, but a male technician also reported to the investigation that Dick made a comment suggesting women were more difficult to work with. And the University of Washington report suggests that the female technician was made uncomfortable by gifts of chocolate that Dick occasionally left at her station.

In response to queries from Undark, Dick did not deny using the phrase "rude bitch," though he argued that it wasn't meant to be overheard. The chocolates, he points out, were given to both male and female colleagues. And his comments on gender to a male technician, Dick said in an email to Undark, were rather to suggest that "some women were hard to work with because they were overly sensitive." These remarks were not directed specifically at the female technician, he added.

Still, the University of Washington eventually concluded that it would only consider hosting Dick on its vessels again provided he agreed to abide by WHOI's harassment policies and watched videos on preventing sex discrimination and sexual harassment, as well as "fostering a respectful work environment." A separate investigation by WHOI found that Dick had created "a harassing and hostile work environment" on the Marion Rise cruise, "through a mixture of inappropriate, unprofessional, and intimidating behaviors, comments, and actions." WHOI ultimately docked Dick's pay, forbade him from acting as chief scientist on future cruises, and required him to undergo anger management training, among other consequences.

As a result, Dick sued both WHOI and the University of Washington, as well as individuals involved with university logistics, and both human resources offices. (Undark made numerous attempts to interview multiple people who had been on the Marion Rise cruise or were named in the lawsuits. All either did not respond to requests for comments or declined.)

Below deck on the Thompson, mugs hang on the wall of the mess area. Visual: Mark Harris for Undark

While neither WHOI nor the University of Washington stated that Dick's behavior aboard the Thompson was sexual in nature, his employer had dealt with complaints about him in the past, and had disciplined him for what it considered "sexually offensive conduct." In 2017, a WHOI investigation concluded that, following multiple reports "regarding recent and ongoing unwanted conduct and comments you have made of a sexual nature," it would put him on administrative probation for one year, banning him from interviewing candidates and taking on new students, or voting on new appointments.

For his part, Dick says the planning for the Marion Rise journey was bungled by the university, and he has vigorously and repeatedly maintained that the accusations against him are unfair, telling Undark in an email that sexual harassment and hostile workplace considerations "have been expanded to the point of absurdity" by human resource departments. They have become, he wrote, "literally whatever they want it to be."

"If a man and a woman have an argument, then it must be sexual harassment, or at the very least the male creating a hostile environment," he continued. "Tell an off-color joke, give advice on integrating career and family life, use language that was fine yesterday but today is deemed offensive by the left — your career is threatened."

These competing perceptions — those of multiple members of the Thompson crew and the University of Washington and WHOI investigators, versus those held by Dick — would seem to be part of an ongoing social reckoning, both in society writ large, and in field science specifically. And the particularly contentious nature of the Marion Rise dustup underscores the stakes when conflicts arise.

To be sure, the personal accounts of individual female scientists, as well as an ever-growing body of research, make clear that many women still face persistent discrimination in scientific and academic disciplines, from lower pay and workplace bullying to a lack of recognition for their achievements. Marine science, which can place investigators at sea in isolated and sometimes tense conditions for weeks at a time, is no exception. A 2020 survey by the online community Women in Ocean Science (WOS) specifically identified a lingering "culture of silence around sexual harassment, gender bias, and discrimination against women" in the field. The most common location for harassment to occur, the survey found, was during fieldwork.

Often these incidents go unreported, and even when complaints are opened with institutions, the disputes are frequently settled out of court — sometimes with non-disclosure agreements that obscure the details. But for the incidents on the Thompson, the rough contours of the contentious cruise have been made public by Dick himself, who filed civil lawsuits in Massachusetts and Washington last year alleging that WHOI and the University of Washington discriminated against him on the basis of his gender, among other counts.

Most of the counts in the Massachusetts case have since been dismissed, and the case was settled with WHOI late last year. While the judge in the Washington case recommended dismissing most counts there, Dick remains keen to take that case to trial.

Although WHOI did respond to questions from Undark after the settlement was reached, the University of Washington declined to provide further details on its investigations, citing the ongoing litigation. Neither institution made individuals identified in Dick's lawsuits available for interviews. As a result, in accordance with generally accepted ethical guidelines, Undark is not naming the subjects of Dick's alleged behavior who have not publicly identified themselves.

To Dick, the complaints against him seem to represent an overcorrection in the culture — and one that threatens scientific careers. But for women who have been public about their own experiences in ocean science, the case suggests the field is still in need of reform.

"We did chase a lot of people out of this field because they had a horrible experience of it," says Julia O'Hern, now operations manager for a marine mammal center, who detailed the discrimination and sexual assault she said she faced in her years as a female ocean scientist in an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2015. "They just didn't feel comfortable going back out there to do that kind of work, and that makes it that much harder to retain women and anyone else from these underrepresented groups," O'Hern told Undark. "It doesn't seem to be getting better very fast."

As it happens, a National Science Foundation policy now requires funding recipients to disclose, among other things, whether principal investigators — which would include expedition leaders like Dick — have previously violated any harassment policies. The rule applies to all funding awards and amendments made on or after Oct. 22, 2018.

The Marion Rise expedition received notice of its NSF award a month earlier.

Henry Dick has had a long and impressive career. After getting his Ph.D. from Yale in 1975, he went to work at WHOI and has been there ever since, achieving tenure, he says, after about 10 years. His work has focused on the relationship between the Earth's mantle flow, melting, and tectonics in ocean ridges, research that requires deep-sea cruises to survey the ocean floor. Dick told Undark that he has been chief scientist or co-chief scientist on approximately 16 other cruises over the years.

In 2011, Dick was given an American Geophysical Union medal and, five years later, was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But WHOI was already dealing with worrying reports of his behavior. The full details of the investigation that resulted in Dick's receiving his administrative probation in 2017 have never been made public. However, the warning gave non-specific examples of Dick's "conduct of a sexual nature deemed to be unsolicited and unwelcome." These included "gender-based jokes and storytelling," "sexual comments and innuendos," "comments about the appearance of some women," and advice about the impact of pregnancy on professional career.

WHOI noted in its official warning: "The Institution has on file a record of incidents from years past that are of a similar unwanted sexual nature. Such conduct is offensive and unacceptable."

Dick admitted to Undark that he had told a single "off-color joke." He also said that he offered advice on when female graduate students should have children, and that, after complimenting a female colleague on her clothing — and upon being asked to clarify what he meant — he "stumbled" through follow-up comments on the fit and color of the clothes. In a later email to Undark, he also characterized the 2017 investigation as "astoundingly one-sided."

As well as the ban on hiring students and interviewing potential staff, WHOI required that Dick undergo sexual harassment training. According to an email from WHOI to Dick, "The trainer characterized your involvement in the training at that time as 'lacking remorse, understanding, or responsibility for your actions.'"

The warning remained confidential within WHOI until Dick filed it as part of his lawsuit, likely meaning that many participants of the 2019 Marion Rise cruise were unaware of it.

The Marion Rise cruise would be Dick's first as chief scientist on this type of dredging expedition in 18 years, according to the WHOI investigation. It had also been a long time in the making. In seven proposals over a 10-year period, Dick says he had asked various agencies to fund cruises to further his research, which he believed could revolutionize geology.

According to Dick, large areas of the Earth's crust are missing at ocean ridges, where the mantle is spreading directly onto the sea floor. He is convinced that his work could reveal the cause and extent of the missing crust, which could lead to improved understanding of ocean chemistry, including its response to climate change. Oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped in the Earth's atmosphere due to greenhouse gas emissions.

"I'm in the middle of making really major changes to the way people think about the formation of the ocean crust, and the nature of the mantle beneath the oceans," he told Undark. That work, he said, is "the sort of thing that commands enormous attention in journals like Nature or Science."

In 2018, the National Science Foundation, together with Chinese and German institutions, wrote checks for the cruise. (While neither WHOI nor the university would provide financial data, Dick estimated the total cost was nearly $3.5 million.) As chief scientist, Dick would be in charge of deciding where the Thompson would go and the tasks his scientific personnel would undertake. As well as a team to operate WHOI's Sentry underwater drone, there were oceanographers, geochemists, geologists, and other specialists from more than a dozen institutions in Europe, China, South Africa, and the U.S. The University of Washington would provide the Thompson with its captain, marine technicians, and most of its crew, and offer logistical support.

In the months leading up to the cruise, communication between Dick and the Thompson's female port captain, responsible for shore-side logistics and planning (and one of the defendants in Dick's Washington lawsuit), satisfied neither side. The WHOI investigation concluded that Dick did not effectively communicate during the pre-cruise phase and that he left the port captain with the perception that he was treating her differently than her male counterparts, although it "did not find these specific actions to be gender based."

For his part, Dick's lawsuits called the university "deficient and disorganized" and he told Undark that the "University of Washington had fouled up the planning process." Among other things, Dick alleged in his complaint, the organizers of the expedition switched captains, notifying him only eight days prior to launch, and they failed to respond in timely ways to email messages. Things, he said, did not improve once the ship left port. The ship's new captain, Eric Haroldson, and Dick disagreed about which dredging method to use for rock collection. Haroldson settled on a technique that he thought was safer for technicians and ship alike in the rough seas of the Indian Ocean, but that Dick believed would be inefficient. Some members of the Thompson's crew, in internal University of Washington documents obtained by Undark via a public records request, maintained that Dick's own indecision and lack of leadership caused delays.

In one lawsuit, Dick estimated that the combined delays cost approximately seven days of ship time — equivalent to more than half a million dollars wasted. The loss to science, he wrote in an email to a friend, was "incalculable."

To add to the pressure, the Thompson's first three dredges were not only delayed but disappointing. The first produced a handful of rocks, the second came up empty, and the third contained just three cobble-sized stones. The fourth dredge was scheduled for the early morning of March 4. The official cruise report shows the Thompson arrived at the dredging location early, with WHOI's senior geophysicist noting that the team would wait an hour before preparing to dredge.

But before that hour was up, Dick arrived in the computer lab and began yelling at a female marine technician — the same one he would confront on deck a week later — for not starting the dredge already, according to the University of Washington investigation. A witness said he walked into the lab and saw Dick "red in the face screaming" with "his finger pointed square in her face in very close proximity." Dick disputes this account in his suit against WHOI, claiming that he only raised his voice in defense after she had already done so.

On March 11, the albatross paid its visit. The female technician reportedly saw Dick step under the safety line without wearing protective equipment while a winching operation was under way. She called the bridge to tell them she was going to confront him. Normally the technician said she would have done this without making a call, but the University of Washington investigation noted that she was "uncomfortable not having anyone present because of how aggressive he has been in the past."

During their heated argument, the technician claimed, Dick threatened to write a report "about you and this ship and how you all treat everything as an overblown safety issue." However, about a week earlier, Dick himself had "reminded everyone on the importance of life vest and hard hats when scientists operate on the aft-deck," according to the cruise's official trip report, written by scientists on the cruise prior to the lawsuits.

The female technician was not the only person upset with Dick's behavior. According to the University of Washington and WHOI investigations, other crew members had noted his disregard for safety, and a penchant for jokes in poor taste. WHOI's investigators also talked with scientists who understood cruise protocols, and their report included some anonymous quotes from those who had been on board the Thompson. "Nothing even came close to this in my 10 years," said one. "If you can't control yourself and get angry, you shouldn't be a chief scientist."


A wall of monitors in the Thompson's computer lab, which controls and records data from the scientific instruments. Visual: Mark Harris for Undark

"If you took away this element of poor leadership, I would have said it was a great cruise," said another. "He made it a miserable place for a lot of people." And a third: "What made me most upset was how he treated" the female technician.

Shortly after a male crew member heard Dick referring to her as "a rude bitch" (Dick told Undark that he had "mumbled" this comment to himself and that it was not meant to be overheard), the female technician requested that Captain Haroldson meet with Dick to discuss Dick's treatment of her. The next day, after talking with the captain, Dick delivered what the female technician described to the University of Washington as a non-apology that did nothing to reduce her anxiety. Dick says the apology was genuine.

She later reported sending an email to her supervisor in Seattle that said: "I honestly feel like I'm going to vomit most times when Henry walks into the room."

Dick's lawsuits paint a very different picture of events. His complaint against WHOI states that he found Haroldson "difficult to approach," that the technician "inappropriately yelled at Dr. Dick for being on the deck," and that he felt mocked by another (male) technician who was imitating him. Soon after informing the female technician about his intent to give the cruise a poor review, the complaint states, "the crew of the RV Thompson and University of Washington employees put the wheels in motion to manufacture an unfounded negative assessment of Dr. Dick."

"I was so frustrated," Dick told Undark, referring to the albatross incident. "At this point, I could see that the dredging program was only going to get half of the material we needed and not enough to prove the hypothesis that I was trying to prove."

There were still about two weeks left on the high seas. Amid an uneasy stalemate, dredging continued until the Thompson suffered engine trouble and began limping its way back to South Africa. On March 28, 2019, the Marion Rise cruise ended in Cape Town.

Although the sea voyage was over, the "post-cruise witch hunt of Dr. Dick," in the words of his WHOI lawsuit, had only begun.

In early April 2019, Haroldson wrote a post-cruise assessment that rated the science party's contribution as poor. Dick "had little to no regard for vessel or personal safety," he wrote in an email to the University of Washington colleagues. "He claims to have been going to sea for 43 years, but he sure does not act as he has." Haroldson also claimed crew members told him that Dick had tried to persuade the ship's mates to use Dick's preferred dredging method, in defiance of his authority, which Haroldson characterized as "a cheap, underhanded ploy."

Dick's WHOI lawsuit calls this claim "outrageous" and "a de facto charge against him of inciting mutiny." Dick told Undark that Haroldson's assessment was filled with false statements.

On April 10, Dick was told that WHOI had received reports of problems on the cruise. In his comments to Undark and in his Massachusetts lawsuit, Dick maintains that whatever acrimony unfolded between him and the technician on the expedition was not due to gender, but because he felt he was being treated disrespectfully. But the University of Washington investigation, completed that May, gathered nine first-hand accounts from crew members and concluded that "Dr. Dick created a hostile work environment through his verbal conduct and insistent behavior. Further, on more than one occasion he engaged in disrespectful behavior" directed at the female technician "that appeared to be based on her gender." It did not include a statement from Dick himself, nor any of the scientists on board.

WHOI's own investigation talked to three WHOI employees, along with one non-WHOI worker and four University of Washington employees who were on the cruise, or had first-hand knowledge of the events described in the complaint. WHOI also spent more than seven hours interviewing Dick himself. It largely agreed with the University of Washington's conclusions, adding that nearly everyone WHOI interviewed "shared the unsolicited opinion that you were unprepared to be a chief scientist, that proper planning had not occurred, that you communicated poorly, and that you should not be a chief scientist going forward."

It also claimed that in the course of its investigation, Dick had made "retaliatory" accusations to discredit the female technician, suggesting she had a graphic sexual image on her computer, and was colluding with a male technician. (WHOI's investigation described the first charge as "unsubstantiated" and the second as "untrue.") Dick claims in his Massachusetts lawsuit that WHOI investigators immediately assumed that his behavior was made in retaliation, whereas they trusted the female technician's account — evidence, Dick says, of gender bias against him.

As well as decreasing his pay by 15 percent, barring him from leadership positions on its future cruises, and requiring him to undergo training, WHOI warned Dick that further violations would likely lead to the loss of his tenure.

Dick disputes many of the facts and opinions cited in the investigations, characterizing them to Undark as "biased," "exaggerated," and "fabricated." He also claims that he was not allowed to see the complaint or read witness statements, and that WHOI "refused to interview any of the scientists who were in the room" when one of the incidents happened. "They had concluded their investigation and already made up their mind before they interviewed me," he says.

So he sued. The Massachusetts lawsuit alleges, among other things, that WHOI had subjected Dick to an "unfair, procedurally deficient, and discriminatory investigation" into a false allegation of "engaging in sexually harassing behavior," and to discipline that was disproportionate to the allegations, irreparably harming his "previously stellar" reputation. (In fact, neither the university nor the WHOI investigations into Dick's behavior on board the Thompson state it was of a sexual nature.)

The complaint contains supportive references from some of the cruise's scientists, characterizing Dick as acting professionally with the crew. Dick also sued the University of Washington and, he says, filed a complaint for waste of federal funds and retaliation with the NSF's Office of Inspector General.

"It is not about whether I was guilty or innocent, it's not about whether the University of Washington was lying," says Dick. "It's about the simple right to make a fair and reasonable defense when you're accused. And without that, we cannot have a free society."

The compressed timescales and limited windows for completing field science projects can heighten tensions, shorten tempers, and, experts suggest, sometimes breed abuse — even as such work remains vital to career advancement. "Most of us cannot get jobs without field experience," said Robin Nelson, an associate professor at Arizona State University who has studied discrimination in academic fieldwork. "We don't write our papers without field experience, and we can't get letters of recommendation without field experience."

In 2013, Nelson and colleagues surveyed nearly 700 researchers. They found that 64 percent reported personally experiencing sexual harassment, including "inappropriate or sexual remarks," "comments about physical beauty," and jokes, at research field sites. Women were 3.5 times more likely to experience it than men. Harassment towards women was primarily directed from senior scientists to those junior to them.

"We want to believe ourselves better than that in academe, and I think that has, in fact, allowed for the abuse to continue in ways and be hidden," Nelson said, explaining later that countersuits can happen because some senior scientists are "absolutely baffled that their behavior is being called out."

Dick thinks that issues "involving claimed sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment" have been "weaponized to accomplish other ends," he wrote in an email to Undark. "A common comment here is that this used to be a fun place to work," says Dick of WHOI. "Now it's awful. It's a hostile environment where you don't know when you can say anything, or who's going to take offense, and when you're going to get in trouble."

In response to a request for comment, WHOI provided a statement from general counsel Christopher Land, which said, in part, that "The Institution conducted thorough and appropriate investigations into complaints that it received concerning conduct allegedly engaged in by Henry J.B. Dick, Ph.D. The Institution stands by those investigations, the manner in which they were conducted, and the conclusions reached, and sanctions imposed on the basis of those investigations. The Federal District Court's recent dismissal of the complaint and those allegations support that position."

University of Washington spokesperson Victor Balta wrote: "We understand the unique nature of working in close quarters on a research vessel and the UW is committed to providing a safe and secure environment for faculty, postdocs, staff, and students wherever they are."

The National Science Foundation, which had no role in the University of Washington or WHOI investigations, told Undark via spokesperson Mike England that it "expects all funded research to be done in environments that ensure the safety and security of award personnel and the continued advancement of taxpayer-funded investments in science and scientists."

Starting in late 2018, the NSF required awardee organizations to notify the agency if a principal investigator was determined to have harassed someone or violated other codes of conduct, or if they had sanctions imposed for harassment. The foundation then reviews the information and, if it deems necessary, removes the investigator, or reduces or suspends the award. However, the NSF award for Dick's cruise was made a month before that policy took effect.

In late March 2019, following the Marion Rise fiasco, Doug Russell, the marine operations manager for the University of Washington at the time, wrote in an email to colleagues that he had spoken with Rose Dufour, program director for ship operations at the NSF, about the accusations against Dick. He later wrote to her in an email, obtained by Undark under a public records request: "Seems that some great science was accomplished — but at a high price due to the inappropriate manner it was managed." Russell also wrote to colleagues: "It may be time for NSF to take action so that Henry is not funded for further at-sea scientific research. Rose and I did talk about that a bit." (The NSF noted that Dufour has no involvement in science funding decisions.)

Two weeks later, Dick wrote a letter to the NSF in which he requested a second cruise to gather the dredge data he failed to get on the Thompson. He made a formal application to the NSF in May.

In July 2019, the NSF awarded WHOI nearly $300,000 for Dick to join and dredge aboard a German cruise to the Marion Rise instead, and once more as principal investigator. Dick's lawsuit against WHOI claims: "The fact that the NSF so quickly approved his proposal for this supplemental cruise which, in Dr. Dick's experience is extremely rare, demonstrates the legitimacy of his issues with the UW/RV Thompson crew's actions."

The NSF told Undark it was unable to comment on whether a particular individual was part of a discrimination or harassment investigation.

The curse of the albatross seems to have followed Dick's work at sea. The supplemental cruise in early 2020 was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic. When South Africa closed its ports, the ship had to make a month-long transit to Europe, with Dick on board. (The German chief scientist on that voyage described Dick as friendly and hardworking.)

Dick says he has personally spent over $150,000 on his legal actions so far, to little avail. The judge in the Massachusetts case dismissed most of his counts, while in Washington, Dick was told by the court to amend his legal complaint if he wants to proceed. An amendment could cost him thousands of dollars more, he says, with no guarantee of success.

"Academic freedom for a professor isn't just whether he gets fired, it's about the right to speak out," says Dick. "It's the right to a fair defense if he's accused of things."

In a long statement provided to the University of Washington investigation into the Marion Rise, the female technician underscored a different point. "For someone that is in a position of power and leadership that is supposed to foster the growth of upcoming young scientists, these sorts of interactions are deplorable to pass on to the next generation." She added that Dick's behavior during the cruise was precisely the sort of thing that major oceanographic and scientific organizations, including the NSF, "say they stand against."

Late in 2021, Dick settled his case against WHOI by complying with its disciplinary measures, dropping his claims, and not appealing the court's dismissal. In return, if he does not break the law or WHOI's policies for a year, his salary will be re-instated. However, the prohibition on Dick serving as chief scientist or leader on any cruise while employed at WHOI will stand.

But Dick now has a big new project on dry land. In July 2021, the NSF awarded WHOI nearly $1 million for a three-year lab-based research program with Dick as principal investigator. The notification that WHOI would have been required to submit to the NSF this time did not affect that award, he told Undark. NSF declined to offer specific comments on the notification or its award decision.

It was Dick's largest award in his 45-year history with the NSF. "I think it unusual," he said, "for someone my age to receive one."

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.


Mark Harris

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