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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 | A version of this story 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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