The National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, announced today a new set of measures to combat sexual harassment by people working on the projects it funds. The steps may include suspending or eliminating research grants after an institution finds that a grantee committed harassment.
NSF said it will require institutions to tell the agency when they make such a finding. They also must report placing grantees accused of harassment on administrative leave while an investigation is underway. NSF Director France Córdova said the agency may suspend a project’s funding in such cases. The policy allows the agency to take actions “as necessary to protect the safety of all grant personnel.”
The move comes as research organizations continue to confront reports that sexual harassment is rampant within many scientific disciplines and too often is ignored by administrators.
Córdova described today’s changes as an expansion of the agency’s previous steps to combat the problem, including a 2016 statement requiring NSF grantees to comply with the requirements of Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits discrimination based on sex at universities that receive federal funding.
“We’re doing this to show in a defined way that NSF doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment or any form of harassment at grantee institutions or field sites or anywhere science is done,” Córdova said during a press conference. People who commit harassment, she said, “really upset the whole balance of the scientific ecosystem and discourage scientists, particularly young scientists, from contributing.”
Until now, although NSF oversaw institutions’ compliance with Title IX, the agency often had to rely on media reports to find out about sexual harassment cases involving its grantees, Córdova said. “That’s a pretty poor way to find out about something,” she acknowledges.
NSF continues to expect its grantee institutions to take the lead in investigating sexual harassment complaints, and those investigations can take months to complete. The agency’s new policy does not require institutions to report an allegation before the investigation is complete, except when they place the accused on administrative leave. Córdova says NSF has previously suspended grants under such circumstances.
The new policy announced today allows NSF, once an investigation is completed, to require institutions to remove people who committed harassment from funded projects.
It also requires grantee institutions to establish “clear and unambiguous standards of behavior to ensure harassment-free workplaces,” including scientific conferences, and to set up “accessible and evident” methods for all personnel, including students, to report violations.
Scientists who have worked on projects to stop harassment in science welcomed the new policy. “There’s nothing like tying grant dollars to ethical behavior,” said Meg Urry, a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University who active in efforts to broaden the participation of women in her discipline and science. “That will be a tremendous incentive for people to get this right.”
But the move also casts a dim light on the state of the science community, said Kate Sleeth, associate dean of administration and student development at City of Hope in Duarte, California, who as past chair of the board of directors for the National Postdoctoral Association ran a survey last year finding nearly 30% of postdocs had experienced sexual harassment. “It’s kind of sad that it will take a national organization to say ‘We will not fund you’ to stop this from happening,” she said. Nonetheless, she hopes the policy will act as a deterrent.
NSF announced it set up a new webpage, NSF.gov/harassment, that lists its policies and procedures to stop harassment as well as best practices and frequently asked questions.
The agency will solicit comments on these new grant terms and conditions through an announcement in the Federal Register within the next several weeks.