Top US science agency sets ‘firmest’ line on sexual misconduct

National Science Foundation demands that universities report findings of sexual harassment involving anyone working on the projects it has financed

September 19, 2018
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The National Science Foundation, the biggest US funder of non-medical university research, has imposed new rules to crack down on sexual harassment, including mandatory reporting requirements for institutions.

The rules, to take effect on 21 October, will require institutions receiving NSF support to report to it any finding of sexual harassment involving anyone working on the projects that it has financed, regardless of whether the allegation was related to or predated the work. Penalties could include removal of the person from the project, and possible termination of the grant.

“Those subjected to harassment are members of the scientific community,” NSF director France Córdova said in a briefing. “By providing targeted serious consequences for harassment, we’re working to do everything in our power to protect them.”

The US government provides the NSF with about $7.8 billion (£5.9 billion) a year, which it uses to award research grants to some 2,000 institutions. Its announcement comes just days after the top provider of US basic research money, the National Institutes of Health, promised to soon announce its own new anti-harassment policy that also imposes reporting requirements.

The actions come amid nationwide attention to the problem of sexual harassment throughout US society following allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein in October 2017. Concerted attention within the research community dates back further, although with arguably no greater success.

2003 study found that 58 per cent of US academic workers have seen some type of sexual harassment, a rate second only to that of the US military among professional sectors. An expert review published last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine cited the study and said there's no evidence that conditions have significantly changed.

The NIH director, Francis Collins, in describing his agency’s actions on 17 September, said he hoped that he and the NSF leadership could reach a common set of anti-harassment policies that would be a model for agencies government-wide. Professor Córdova said that could be difficult because of legal differences between organisational structures, but added that the agencies shared the same goal of ending harassment.

“NIH is working on what it is able to do,” Professor Córdova said in the briefing. “Right now, arguably, we have the firmest policy,” she said.

Nevertheless, she could not predict the practical effect of her own new rules. The NSF policy requires universities to report instances of sexual harassment, but only after the institutions have completed their own review or taken some other formal action. There are also existing federal rules against sexual discrimination and sexual harassment, and NSF officials said that they could not interfere with those processes.

And often, punishments would be limited to removing the violator from the grant – so that other researchers at the institution would not be penalised – with a maximum individual disbarment period of five years.

But until now, NSF officials said, they have largely been limited to investigating harassment cases cited in media reports. The agency is also inviting individual researchers to submit their own complaints about harassment directly to the agency. NSF officials said that they will investigate such complaints, and are working to ensure they have adequate staffing to handle that.

The NSF announced an initial version of its policy in February, and invited public comment on it. After reviewing nearly 200 responses, the NSF made some revisions to the final version, Professor Córdova said, largely involving matters of definitions and clarity.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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