US science agencies in new drive to tackle sexual harassment

Efforts to prevent sexual harassment at universities advanced with new policies from top US provider of science funding and world’s biggest general science society

September 17, 2018
sexual assault, sexual harassment
Source: iStock

University researchers are set to gain new protections from sexual harassment, as the top US provider of science funding and the world’s biggest general science society put forward new policies to tackle the problem.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science announced a process, to begin next month, allowing for the revocation of membership in its prestigious fellowship programme for a range of ethical violations.

And the National Institutes of Health, which provides nearly $30 billion (£23 billion) in grant support to universities and research institutions worldwide, said it will detail in coming days a new anti-harassment policy that includes systems for reporting, education and training.

The AAAS elects hundreds of fellows each year, and it came under pressure to create some ethics-based standards for choosing and retaining them after its 2015 class included Patrick Harran. Professor Harran, a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, was charged along with his institution with felony safety violations in the death of a staff researcher fatally burned in a fire in his lab. The defendants later reached legal settlements that included fines and commitments to safety improvements.

During the review triggered by the Harran case, numerous scientists and other activists began pressing the AAAS to look broadly at the matter, citing a need to confront the far more common problem of harassment of researchers, especially forms involving sex and gender.

The new AAAS process for receiving and acting upon complaints against fellows and prospective fellows is a recognition that the scientific community needs to do more to police itself, said AAAS president Margaret Hamburg in a statement.

Francis Collins, director of the NIH, issued a similar call in announcing his agency’s new policies, which allow for the possibility of revoking grants and contacting law enforcement in sexual harassment cases the NIH discovers.

Dr Collins said he is working with the other major federal provider of money for basic research, the National Science Foundation, to help create a policy approach that can be implemented at agencies across the government.

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