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France Córdova

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NSF spells out new sexual harassment policy: Talk to us

Starting next month, universities must tell the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, if any faculty members with NSF grants have been found guilty of sexual and other forms of harassment, or if they have suspended them for any reason. But NSF won’t pull its funding if institutions can assure the agency that another faculty member can take over the research project.

Those new requirements are part of changes to NSF’s grantmaking process that will go into effect on 21 October. They are essentially what NSF proposed in March, after Director France Córdova responded to rising concern over sexual harassment in science by promising to provide a “safe, productive research and education environment” at institutions it funds.

Córdova said then that she hoped the new policy would prevent the agency from being blindsided by media reports of NSF grantees who are harassers. NSF has now clarified how the notification process will work. But the new policy could still leave NSF in the dark for quite a while after someone has first complained about harassment by a researcher.

“We are not interested in allegations, obviously, because due process is very important,” says Peggy Hoyle, NSF’s deputy general counsel. “So in that sense, we need to know the finding or determination” before the foundation acts. Hoyle was speaking at a media briefing this morning in which NSF laid out the new policy, which will be posted in the Federal Register on Friday.

Hoyle said NSF needs “concrete” action by a university before it can respond. That’s where the time lag comes into play. NSF has defined “finding or determination” to mean “the final disposition of a matter involving sexual harassment or other forms of harassment.” And that comes only after “the exhaustion of permissible appeals” by the guilty scientist, “or a conviction of a sexual offense in a criminal court of law.”

There is a quicker way for NSF to be clued in, Hoyle said. Under the new rules, every university must notify NSF if it takes so-called administrative action against an NSF-funded scientist after an allegation has been made but before it has completed an investigation. Those steps could include restricting their access to students or even banning them from campus.

For NSF, the key issue is whether the research can continue unimpeded. Asked under what circumstances NSF would terminate a grant to a principal investigator (PI) found guilty of sexual harassment, Córdova said it would depend on the capacity of the institution to do the research without the original PI.

“If the institution could convince us that there was leadership in the group, say by the co-PI or somebody else, then we’d have to reassure ourselves that the research could be conducted as had been proposed to be done,” Córdova told reporters. “We, of course, are interested in the welfare of graduate students and postdocs, etcetera, who are working under that grant. And if there were a circumstance that the research was so narrowly focused and there was nobody able to take over the grant, then … it would be within our purview to terminate the funding.”

NSF has created a website that it bills as providing one-stop shopping on all matters relating to sexual harassment. NSF is beginning to beef up its ability to handle the anticipated traffic, says Rhonda Davis, head of NSF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. “But we are still trying to figure out how many people we will need.”

NSF must tread carefully when investigating allegations of sexual harassment. Under Title IX of a 1972 federal education law banning gender discrimination for any institution that receives federal funds, any complaints it receives from employees would be funneled to another federal agency. “We do not want to get crosswise of Title IX,” Córdova noted.

At the same time, NSF does look into allegations from students and other NSF-program participants. It can also use information provided by employees in conducting Title IX compliance reviews of grantee institutions.

*Clarification, 19 September, 4:35 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify that the proposed changes are final and to note how NSF now handles complaints of sexual harassment.