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The National Science Foundation’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia

Maria Barnes/National Science Foundation

NSF tallies 16 cases of alleged harassment by grantees in first year of new rules

It’s been 1 year since the National Science Foundation (NSF) implemented a new policy governing when universities must tell it about possible sexual harassment by grantees. Despite adopting a narrow definition of who is covered, agency officials say they are surprised by how many notifications—16 to date—they have received.

The rules apply only to researchers who received an award after 22 October 2018 or a recent amendment to an earlier award, and kick in only when an institution takes what is called an “administrative action.” That could range from monitoring someone’s behavior to banning the alleged perpetrator from campus. Institutions must also notify NSF of the final decision in a harassment investigation involving an NSF grantee, the end of a process that can drag on for years.

If followed by institutions, the notification rules should reduce the chances that the agency is blindsided by media reports of current grantees who are found guilty of harassment. But the rules will not create a database of all sexual harassment investigations at NSF-funded institutions, nor was that NSF’s intention. Rather, the rule addresses NSF’s obligation to ensure a “safe and secure” research environment at places where it is spending money.

Given the limited scope of the new requirement, NSF officials thought it would be quite a while before they would begin to hear from universities. But much to their surprise, the new policy generated 13 notifications during the 2019 fiscal year that ended on 30 September. And the pace seems to be picking up: NSF received three notifications in the first three weeks of October.

“We’ve seen a little uptick and we don’t know why,” says Rhonda Davis, head of NSF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which is responsible for enforcing the new rules, called terms and conditions.

Safety and privacy

Harassment is a serious and growing problem at U.S. universities. The latest survey by the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 62 leading research institutions, found that 13% of students reported being the target of “nonconsensual sexual contact,” with the rate for undergraduate women rising by three percentage points since the previous survey in 2015.

But even as their institutions move aggressively to deal with the problem, university officials say they must protect the privacy of all parties involved during the investigations. And some worry the new NSF reporting requirements could make that job harder.

Meeting last week with an advisory panel for NSF’s engineering directorate that included university deans and department chairs, Davis was peppered with questions about whether NSF had fully thought through the implications of its policy.

“Our first step [after getting an allegation] is usually to remove [the alleged perpetrator] from the situation because you don’t want to put anybody in jeopardy,” Gregory Washington, dean of engineering at the University of California, Irvine, told Davis. “And I know we’re not alone in doing that. But at that point, they are still innocent. And if you pull their grant, it would seriously damage their career.”

In response, Davis explained that NSF initally just wants to know whether a university has decided to put someone on administrative leave or otherwise change their status. The agency would then talk with university officials about whether someone else needs to take over the grant. It is NSF’s job to protect “the integrity of the award,” she added, but reporting an administrative action “doesn’t [necessarily] mean that you have to separate the person from the grant.” If there’s a finding of harassment against a principal investigator (PI), she noted, NSF would review the case and determine whether the university needs to remove the PI in order to retain the grant. 

Panel members were also concerned about the wisdom of informing NSF when the situation was still very much in flux. “We have strict rules limiting who has access to the information” once an allegation is reported and an investigation is launched, noted Jeanne VanBriesen, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “So, reporting it to a third party, in this case, NSF, is a matter of some discomfort.”

Davis said NSF recognizes the need to keep such information confidential. “The reports come into a secure portal, and only our office and the general counsel’s office have access to it,” Davis explained. Agency program managers are told if the university has taken administrative action against a grantee whose research they are overseeing, she adds. “But it’s only for the purpose of deciding if the PI can still carry out the work,” Davis says. “They are not given any information about the allegation.”

Washington suggested universities might decide not to tell NSF if the researcher under scrutiny had lots of funding from the agency. “I’d be willing to bet that you’re not hearing from everybody,” he told Davis.

Davis said she welcomed the feedback. “We want to know if you think we’re doing more harm than good,” she told the committee. And panelist Leah Jamieson of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, said the idea any institution would “act differently for high-flyers is, frankly, repulsive.”

Several members said NSF needs to do a better job of informing the community about the new policy. “It’s been a year, but many of us are still confused about when to report,” Washington told Davis.

At the same time, committee members acknowledged NSF faced a major challenge in crafting a policy that would address every case of alleged harassment at every NSF-funded institution. “There is no definitive answer,” says Darryll Pines, chair of the advisory committee and dean of engineering at the University of Maryland in College Park. “I have been dean for 10 years, and every situation is unique and different.”

*Clarification, 31 October, 11:55 a.m.: This story has been revised to clarify the purpose of NSF’s new policy and what institutions are required to do.