Research funders urged to follow NSF lead on harassment

National Science Foundation requires universities to inform them if staff members receiving grant funding face sexual harassment allegations

February 19, 2018
Careless whispers

Academics have called on research funders to follow the lead of the US’ National Science Foundation and require universities to inform them if staff members receiving grant funding have been found guilty of or placed under investigation for sexual harassment claims.

In a notice sent on 8 February to the leaders of 2,000 universities, colleges and other organisations in receipt of NSF funds, the agency says that it “does not tolerate sexual harassment, or any kind of harassment” and has developed a new “term and condition that will require grantee organisations to report findings of sexual harassment, or any other kind of harassment” among researchers.

“This term and condition will make it clear that NSF may take unilateral action as necessary to protect the safety of all grant personnel, to include suspending or terminating an award or requiring the grantee to replace or remove personnel,” the statement says.

The move comes in response to a growing volume of harassment allegations affecting US higher education, and has prompted calls for similar action to be taken across the globe.

Graham Towl, professor of forensic psychology at Durham University who, as a former pro vice-chancellor, led the institution's sexual violence task force, said that funding bodies had a clear role in ensuring that research environments are “safe for all”.

“There is a strong case for making research funding contingent upon the implementation of specialist policies and reporting procedures for tackling sexual violence and harassment, with annually published data on actions taken in response to reports,” said Professor Towl, speaking in a personal capacity.

“Looking at US developments, I agree that research funding bodies should have a requirement for universities to declare if a researcher is under investigation for sexual violence or misconduct.”

Other researchers, however, were sceptical about whether such a policy could be fully implemented or enforce a cultural change in the US or elsewhere.

Rachel Moss, lecturer in late medieval history at the University of Oxford, noted that there had been “no specific commitment to action, just the potential for it”, which she said was “not a particularly radical outcome”.

However, Dr Moss added: “I don’t believe this policy change is about threatening personnel accused of harassment, but rather about protecting other people working with potential harassers.

“The NSF wording makes it clear this is a protective rather than punitive measure, which seems a responsible step for them to take, and major funding bodies in the UK might want to consider following suit.”

Mel Bartley, emeritus professor of medical sociology at UCL, said that, while “most universities” she had worked in had employed “pretty fierce HR and harassment policies”, on consideration, “I don’t see that the reluctance to call out the culprits due to fears for one's own job and career would work any differently when it came to removing grants”.

“Who is going to report harassment if it might mean the end of the grant that funds their own work? Or the failure of a project whose results will go on their CV?” she asked.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation

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