Adopt US tactics to tackle sexual harassment, UKRI told

Mandatory reporting of abuse allegations and anonymous whistleblowing that have led to action in US should be considered, say campaigners

June 18, 2021
Protesters gather as Harvey Weinstein arrives at a Manhattan court house for the start of his trial on January 06, 2020 as a metaphor for US tactics to tackle sexual harassment, UKRI told
Source: Getty

The UK’s research umbrella organisation has been urged to emulate radical US policies to tackle sexual harassment in academia after America’s largest federal research funder revealed the results of its own crackdown on workplace abuse.

Data released by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) earlier this month show that it has removed funding from 54 principal investigators for sexual harassment since 2018, with a further 21 individuals stripped of grants for other types of misbehaviour, including bullying and racism. Before 2018, a PI had never lost a grant for sexual harassment, but the agency has encouraged scientists to file complaints in response to the MeToo movement.

In total, it received more than 300 complaints as universities are required by law to report accusations made against any NIH-funded researcher.

Many of the allegations that led the NIH to take action against the 75 scientists followed the creation of a hotline, with a web-based option, for anonymous reports of allegations of misbehaviour.

However, UK Research and Innovation has resisted calls to adopt similar measures despite England’s science minister, Amanda Solloway, expressing shock at reports of a “culture of bullying and harassment” in science. UKRI has established a Forum for Tackling Bullying and Harassment involving universities and funders to investigate potential action, which has yet to say whether it would consider removing grants from PIs if allegations of wrongdoing were upheld. An evidence review published in October 2019 suggested that this move might deter whistleblowers from reporting workplace misconduct for fear of jeopardising a grant that funds their own work.

Anna Bull, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth and co-founder of the 1752 Group, which campaigns against sexual harassment in higher education, said it was important for UKRI to take notice of the NIH results, which represented a “huge step change for tackling sexual harassment in academia”.

“If UK funders implemented policies along these lines, staff and students would be more likely to report harassment as they would see there were clear consequences to reporting,” said Dr Bull, who urged UK funders to “learn from the NIH and carry out independent, mixed-methods monitoring of the introduction of such policies to assess their efficacy”.

Graham Towl, professor of psychology at Durham University and a campaigner against sexual harassment on campus, also called for new action to stop “widespread under-reporting” of abuse.

“If they don’t act, UKRI are missing an opportunity to make a potentially significant contribution to helping tackle sexual violence at universities,” said Professor Towl.

Dame Ottoline Leyser, UKRI’s chief executive, said the agency would “expect all staff, students and personnel directly involved in UKRI-funded activities to act with the highest standards of integrity and to treat each other with dignity and respect”.

“UKRI has policies in place and expectations of our funding recipients, but policies in isolation are not enough – cultural change is needed, as is commitment to the changes needed from senior leaders in research organisations,” she explained, adding that “competition criteria and reward and recognition mechanisms can be enablers of bullying and harassment, both in what they reward, and in what they fail to reward”.

Dame Ottoline said UKRI’s expectations of funded institutions included “having a duty of care towards individuals who have reported concerns and setting out how reports will be investigated and the action that will be taken if allegations are upheld, including disciplinary measures. We expect to be informed of cases and will be setting out further information on this later in 2021.”

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