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U.S. National Science Foundation Cracks Down on Sexual Harassment

Time's up.

SCIENCE AF STAFF
9 FEB 2018
 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has introduced a new policy that requires colleges, universities and other organizations that receive NSF funds to disclose any grant recipients who have committed sexual harassment.

 

The new policy comes after numerous sexual harassment scandals in the scientific community – in particular, a Boston University professor who violated campus policies on sexual harassment while on an NSF-funded study in Antarctica.

"His taunts, degrading comments about my body, brain, and general inadequacies never ended," wrote one accuser.

"Every day was terrifying," she said in an interview with Science.

This woman is not alone. In a recent Pew Research report, it was found that one-third of women in STEM careers find sexual harassment to be at least a small problem where they work.

But until now, government science agencies "haven't had a requirement on universities to report a [harassment] finding or when they've put someone on administrative leave" during a harassment investigation, according to NSF director France Córdova.

Now, officials are cracking down on what appears to be a pervasive problem in the scientific community.

Under the new policy, NSF grant recipients must "report findings of sexual harassment, or any other kind of harassment regarding a PI [principal investigator] or co/PI or any other grant personnel." It also requires the institution to report if anyone is placed on administrative leave during a harassment investigation.

 

According to a notice from the foundation, the NSF expects these institutions to lay out "clear standards" for harassment-free workplaces, as well as a clear path for students and others to report any problems they are facing.

"It's a big step in the right direction," said biogeochemist Erika Marín-Spiotta, who is leading a $1.1 million NSF initiative to combat sexual and other harassment in science.

Even still, Marin-Spiotta thinks the foundation needs to go even further with the policy. For instance, the NSF policy has no clear guidelines for what happens if an institution fails to complete an investigation altogether, nor does it clearly define what exactly constitutes sexual harassment.

"At the end of the day, if the employing institution doesn't do its job, those who are affected will still be in a very difficult situation," says C. K. Gunsalus, who specializes in research integrity at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

It's not just the NSF that has decided to crack down on this problem. After the Antarctica scandal became public, the House of Representatives' science committee asked the Government Accountability Office to examine sexual harassment at a bunch of different science agencies, including the NSF, NASA, the Department of Energy and the National Instittues of Health. NSF is one of the first science agencies to do so.

 

Still, there are limitations to the new policy. Unfortunately, what constitutes sexual harassment can differ greatly from one university to another. For instance, in some universities, a sexual relationship between a faculty member and a student might not be considered harassment at all.

Marin-Spiotta also wonders whether such a policy could deter some people from making harassment allegations for fear of losing funding altogether.

"You could imagine a postdoc thinking, my advisor's going to lose all the funding I need to do my work," she says. She argues that routing the funding directly to students or post-docs could be a possible solution to this problem.

All in all, however, it seems like most science agencies and scientists are on board with the idea.

"Linking reporting of harassment to funding is the next step the scientific enterprise can take to stop bullying and harassment by making the consequences clear," said AGU president-elect Robin Bell, a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

"I think it will make a big impact," said Meg Urry, an astronomer at Yale University. 

"Grant money is very important to scientists and their institutions, so this policy will definitely help change the culture."