women in science

High school student Penelope Jo Parsons shows her work at the March 1968 Science Talent Search fair.

Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Zero tolerance for sexual harassment at NSF and NASA

The National Science Foundation (NSF) “does not tolerate sexual harassment,” it stated in an announcement issued 25 January. Neither does NASA, according to a 15 January statement by Charles Bolden, the agency’s administrator. In view of NSF’s “unwavering dedication to inclusive workplaces” and its clout as a major funder of research at thousands of universities, colleges, and research organizations, its statement is likely to get the attention of faculty members and university administrators across the country. So is Bolden’s advice that “all of our NASA grantee institutions … examine closely their current policies and procedures for” dealing with harassment allegations.  

The power of funders to influence what goes on in labs and classrooms has long been clear. Changes in funding requirements, for example, brought swift improvement in the treatment of human subjects and laboratory animals. Given the recent and highly publicized cases involving a resignation and a suspension of prominent scientists accused of sexual harassment and a congressional speech on the subject, the NSF move adds impetus to changes likely taking place on many campuses.

“NSF holds responsible the 2,000 U.S. colleges, universities and other institutions that receive NSF funding and requires their implementation of Title IX protections,” the agency’s announcement states. “And NSF encourages NSF-funded researchers and students to hold colleagues accountable to the standards and conditions set forth in Title IX, and to inform their institution of violations. … NSF may terminate funding to any institution found to be in noncompliance with Title IX regulations and that does not voluntarily come into compliance.”

It’s great that NSF wants to enforce standards of decency and fair treatment. But NSF, NASA, and other major funders such as the National Institutes of Health should also use their power on the side of another sorely needed change: seriously upgrading the inadequate safety standards tolerated in many academic labs across the country. Major funders’ failure to do so is “a missed opportunity to influence positive safety management and behavior,” says the groundbreaking 2011 report from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), because “[t]he grant funding agency has the power to end a research contract/agreement and, thus, can play an impactful role in raising safety awareness and preparedness by the researcher and university.”

At least one federal funding agency has included safety performance in its requirements for funding, the CSB report continues. Following the 2010 lab explosion at Texas Tech University that severely injured a graduate student—and inspired the CSB report—the funder of the research, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), “immediately initiated several administrative safety controls” in its agreements with grantees, making planning for safe research work a requirement of continued funding.

“[T]he changes DHS made after the Texas Tech incident suggest that grant-funding institutions may play a critical role in influencing immediate safety change,” the CSB report states. It’s long past time for the other federal, and private, funding agencies to follow suit.

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