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NSF addresses sexual harassment by grant recipients

Funding agency now requires institutions to report findings of harassment

by Linda Wang & Andrea Widener
February 8, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 7

The U.S. National Science Foundation will require universities to report grant recipients who they have found guilty of sexual harassment, the agency announced today.

Under a new condition of the award, institutions receiving NSF support are required to report any finding of sexual or other harassment involving grant personnel—including principal investigators—as well as the placement of any individuals on administrative leave relating to a harassment investigation or finding.

In response to those reports, NSF can now apply the same sanctions to findings of sexual harassment that it does to findings of research misconduct. That can include suspending or terminating a grant.

“NSF doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment or any form of harassment at grantee institutions or field sites, or anywhere that science is done,” says France A. Córdova, NSF’s director. “We believe that people who create hostile environments that are unsafe and disruptive really upset the whole balance of the scientific ecosystem and discourage scientists—and particularly young scientists.”

Córdova says that although NSF does not include sexual harassment in the definition of research misconduct, it does consider sexual harassment to be misconduct. “NSF-funded institutions have to comply with the Title IX statute and regulations, and the steps we’re outlining today are intended to foster that compliance, enhance prevention, and raise awareness,” Córdova says.

James Sears Bryant, a lawyer who has worked with several universities on sexual assault and harassment investigations, says NSF’s move is a great step forward. He particularly likes the agency’s proposal to take unilateral action against a principle investigator if necessary. “This is being implemented in an environment of timidity. People are afraid to ask or tell,” he says, citing the Michigan State University’s poor investigations of complaints against U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar as an example.

Pedro Ribeiro, vice president for communications for the Association of American Universities, says universities take the issue of sexual harassment and misconduct seriously. “We applaud NSF for addressing the issue,” he says. “We will review the proposed policy and will continue to work with the NSF and other partners to help ensure that these policies are effective.”



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Amy Charles (February 8, 2018 2:07 PM)
Given that this gives universities powerul new disincentive to find that anyone has committed sexual harassment, perhaps graduate students or other employees going to Title IX staff to report harassment would be well-advised to bring their own lawyers along to all relevant meetings.
lana (February 9, 2018 9:37 AM)
According to that logic the more funding sources explicitly cite harassment/assault as a disqualifying condition, the more a university will act like organized crime and commit frauds to collect funds.
I disagree.
The problem at the university level to date is many have not taken sexual assault/harassment of staff/students by staff/students seriously. They have not investigated it thoroughly, and they dont know how to 'end' a process or what will/should happen if an investigation ends a certain way.
This helps solve two of those issues. It raises the significance and the clarity of how serious assault/harassment is (ie on par with research misconduct, possible suspension or terminating a grant), and it gives a definitive outcome (grants terminated if PI guilty).
Nobody likes that outcome...but its necessary to ensure we dont perpetuate abuse.
Whats worse...a single Larry Nasser of the sciences, or termination of a single NSF grant (and eventual re-awarding the money to the next best application)?
If you truley believe that a particular university will fudge a sexual assault/harassment investigation, dont you think taking all sanctions off the table is inappropriate, and you/we ought to be figuring out who in charge of student/staff well being is willing to lie for grant money and getting rid of them instead?
Afraid to give name (February 12, 2018 5:32 PM)
Do we have a definition of what sexual harassment is? The ones I've seen are all over the place, even including the idea that anything a women thinks is harassment is harassment. With no definition (or really scary ones), how can there be such harsh punishments? Right now the definition seems to be whoever gets the most positive press for their side is the winner. This really looks exactly like the hunt for communists years ago.
Jyllian Kemsley (February 20, 2018 9:41 PM)
@Afraid - The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
Nicole Burke (February 19, 2018 4:47 PM)
While I applaud the NSF for forming a position on the unfortunate reality of sexual harassment in STEM fields, I worry that their approach will have untended consequences for the victims of sexual harassment. The NSF has not described a provision protecting NSF-funded graduate students who are sexually harassed by their PIs. If a graduate student receives funding via an NSF-grant awarded to their PI, this policy could encourage them to not report the abuse. It forces students to choose between receiving continued funding (what many graduate students consider to be priority #1) and reporting their abuse. There is also the possibility of retribution against a reporter from other students/post-docs who lose their grant funding as a result of them reporting harassment.

These are just some of the reflections I have as a recent female PhD graduate whose studies were funded by my professor's NSF grant.

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