Fund individual academics, not PIs, ‘to stamp out sexual abuse’

Gender equality expert says higher education sector must ‘strengthen the economic independence of researchers’ 

October 25, 2019
Source: istock

Research funding should be given to individual academics rather than principal investigators to prevent the “financing of sexual abuse”, an expert on gender equality has claimed.

Fredrik Bondestam, director of the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at the University of Gothenburg and an expert on feminist theory and gender in academia, said that the move would “be a way of strengthening the economic independence of researchers”.

Speaking at the “Research and innovation excellence through gender equality” conference in Helsinki, Dr Bondestam said: “One important measure could be to stop financing the PIs as research funders. Instead you should finance the individual researcher in each research group, in each application.

“In that sense, if you are being sexually harassed and you have to leave your research group, at least you leave the group with funding.”

Later, when asked to cite the most urgent change the higher education sector could make to prevent sexual harassment, he said: “Stop financing sexual abuse. This means spreading the money not only to the PIs, having ethical contracts, [and] being aware that money produces sexual abuse.”

Representatives from research funding organisations in Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic said during a panel later in the day that the proposal would be worth thinking about, but that they would need to check whether it posed any “legal issues”.

Dr Bondestam, who said there were “almost no national statistics updated on sexual harassment in academia” in Europe, also told universities to abolish short-term contracts, claiming that these were a “risk factor for creating a culture of silence connected with abuse”.

He added that it is “almost impossible to fire a professor”, which means that there were legal barriers to preventing and punishing sexual harassment.

However, he said that universities could introduce “academic sanctions” to get around this – for example, barring academics found guilty of abuse from supervising PhDs for five years.

“We can find other sanctions that are academic, not legal, and they would probably be more useful than the legal ones in a sense,” Dr Bondestam said during a panel discussion on sexual harassment and gender-based violence in academia.

However, he stressed that sanctions must be used “carefully because they are strong instruments” and will face a backlash.

Ruth Lewis, associate professor in the department of social sciences at Northumbria University and an expert on gender-based violence and feminist activism, who also spoke on the panel, said that moves in the UK over the past decade to “reduce the dependency” between PhD students and a single supervisor have been “inadvertently very helpful in potentially reducing the perpetration of abuse and harassment”.

“The changes have come about to move away from a situation where a student sees their supervisor once and then in three years’ time submits a thesis. Instead, there are lots of other milestones, lots of other opportunities for the student to engage with other members of staff,” she said.

However, she said that the “audit culture” in the UK and the “obsession with the research excellence framework” counteracts this progress as universities “can be very reluctant to lose their research stars”.

“If that research star is accused of abusing his student then the university might well be reluctant to take action against that person,” she said.

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