Efforts to Combat Sexual Harassment Gain Momentum

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Publication date: 
3 October 2018
Number: 
112

Amid increasing calls for action from within the scientific community and Congress, some federal agencies and scientific societies have advanced new initiatives to combat sexual harassment in the sciences.

In the past month, the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and American Association for the Advancement of Science have all announced new initiatives to combat sexual harassment in science. While these latest actions vary in their scope, all three institutions have indicated they regard the moves as a prelude for more actions to come.

Pressure to deal effectively with sexual harassment in science has now been building for about three years. However, momentum for action has begun to build in earnest over the past year, catalyzed by the release of a landmark National Academies report on the subject this summer and the emergence of the national #MeToo movement. There is now a push in Congress from both parties for interagency policies to deny funding to perpetrators of sexual harassment and a growing consensus among scientific societies on the need for coordinated action.

NSF implements new harassment reporting requirements

NSF has been at the forefront of federal agencies in using funding as leverage to combat sexual harassment. In February, the agency released an initial draft of a policy requiring grantee institutions to report findings of sexual harassment or other misconduct. The draft received nearly 200 public comments during its review period.

On Sept. 21, NSF released the final policy, which takes effect on Oct. 21 for all new grants and extensions of existing ones. It requires institutions to report within 10 business days any findings of harassment, including sexual harassment and assault, committed by an NSF-funded principal investigator (PI) or co-PI. Institutions will also have to report if they take certain actions due to harassment allegations, such as placing the accused individual on administrative leave during an investigation.

The policy does not require institutions to report the initiation of investigations into harassment complaints. However, NSF has also launched a website that describes how individuals can report incidents directly to the agency.

Based on information reported to NSF, the agency may “initiate the substitution or removal of the PI or any co-PI, reduce the award funding amount, or where neither of those previous options is available or adequate, to suspend or terminate the award.” Explaining the underlying rationale for not automatically revoking grants, NSF Director France Córdova said,

This new policy is intended to provide targeted, serious consequences for harassers. It gives people tools to make harassment stop without disturbing others’ careers and lives.

NSF is committed to ensuring the safety and security of the people our awards support. When that safety is endangered through the actions of someone associated with an NSF award, the foundation will work to replace that person while preserving support for responsible members of the community.

Córdova also said NSF will “continue to listen to the research community and monitor our progress” over the coming months and consider additional actions.

The new policy complements existing Title IX requirements, which prohibit gender-based discrimination within federally funded education programs or activities and define how institutions must address and adjudicate sexual harassment and assault allegations.

NIH under pressure to take further action

On Sept. 17, the National Institutes of Health announced several initiatives to address sexual harassment, including the establishment of a centralized system for managing harassment reports for its intramural research program and the launch of a new website detailing its policies and efforts to address misconduct. “NIH recognizes that we need to increase our transparency on this issue,” NIH Director Francis Collins said in a statement. 

However, NIH has garnered criticism for not taking stronger actions, particularly for its extramural grant programs. Currently, in addition to complying with Title IX, NIH-funded institutions are required to report if grantees are placed on administrative leave or removed from their position, but they are not required to report findings of harassment.

In an August letter to Collins, Sen. Patty Murry (D-WA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) criticized the agency’s response to incidents of sexual harassment at grantee institutions and pointed to NSF’s new reporting requirements as a laudable step.

In a statement following the release of NSF’s new policy, Collins said “legal constraints that apply differently to NSF and NIH currently prevent NIH from immediate implementation of an identical policy.” He said a formal rulemaking process would be required for NIH to implement similar reporting requirements.

Calls for cross-government harassment policy increasing

Increasingly, there are calls from within the government to coordinate across agencies to implement more systematic sexual harassment policies. Collins said he plans to ask the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Science, which he co-chairs with Córdova, to consider “uniform measures that would be most effective in changing the pervasive culture of sexual harassment in science.” 

Kelvin Droegemeier, the nominee to direct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said at his confirmation hearing that NSF’s efforts have “put an important stake in the ground,” and that OSTP could “promulgate” similar efforts across R&D funding agencies.

In Congress, the House Science Committee has also spotlighted the issue. In January, it requested a Government Accountability Office report on the handling of sexual harassment claims by R&D funding agencies across the government. On Sept. 19, it sent a new letter to GAO outlining recommendations for improving reporting structures and clarifying the ability of federal agencies to replace PIs based on findings of sexual misconduct.

“No taxpayer dollars should be awarded to a researcher who engages in harassment and inappropriate behavior toward a colleague or a student under their charge,” Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) has indicated she plans to reintroduce legislation that would require universities to report findings of sexual harassment or assault to federal funding agencies. That information would then be considered when making future grant award decisions.

“While women are being driven out of STEM fields, perpetrators are awarded for their behavior by continuing to receive millions of dollars in federal funding,” Speier said in a statement to FYI.Taxpayers have no interest in rewarding sexual harassers with taxpayer-funded grants. Congress must act.”

Scientific societies mobilizing to address harassment

On Sept. 15, the American Association for the Advancement of Science announced new procedures for revoking the status of its elected fellows, a lifetime honor bestowed on scientists in recognition of career achievements.

The new policy applies to “cases of proven scientific misconduct, serious breaches of professional ethics, or when the Fellow in the view of AAAS otherwise no longer merits the status of Fellow.” It specifies that breaches of professional ethics encompass sexual misconduct and harassment and racial discrimination. 

“Harassment has no place in science,” said AAAS President Margaret Hamburg in a statement on the policy, adding,

We need effective and responsive policies in academic departments and institutions, scientific societies, and government agencies that define expectations of behavior and provide clear reporting processes, as well as consequences for violations.

In a Sept. 21 editorial in Science, Hamburg, AAAS Board Chair Susan Hockfield, and President-Elect Steven Chu emphasized the time has come for “systematic change,” and that the fellow revocation procedure is just one step required to improve the culture in science. 

Some societies, such as the American Geophysical Union and American Astronomical Society, have also implemented new policies to combat sexual harassment. And many societies are under increasing pressure to strengthen their response to the problem, including by withdrawing any honorific status or awards they have given to perpetrators.

For instance, the National Academies has been petitioned to revoke the membership of individuals found guilty of sexual harassment or assault. The National Academies presidents have said they have initiated discussion on establishing new formal standards of conduct for their members.

On Oct. 1, leaders from dozens of scientific societies, including AIP, convened in Washington, D.C., to discuss sexual harassment in STEM fields. The societies intend to form a consortium over the coming months that will develop model policy frameworks and practices to combat sexual harassment and a shared resource toolkit that societies and other institutions can use to help craft their own responses.

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