The NSF Gets Serious And #MeToo

We Must. Image Courtesy of Molly Adams via FlickrCC

It looks like the NSF is finally getting serious about its stance on researching funding and harassment in the sciences. Two years ago in January 2016, in an official statement, the NSF threatened to pull funding from Universities that didn’t follow Title IX mandates. They warned, “NSF encourages NSF-funded researchers and students to hold colleagues accountable to the standards and conditions set forth in Title IX.” This was a good start, if a somewhat toothless threat. Let’s just say that personally holding your colleagues accountable for their actions (while admirable) is something that only seems remotely reasonable when you’re sitting in a position of relative power and privilege.

Then the last two years happened. And things got so real.

The #MeToo movement has been picking up steam across industries and math is no exception. Stories of blatant sexism and harassment in the math and tech sector have made their way into the mainstream media, and earlier this year an anonymous crowdsourced list of Sexual Harassment in The Academy was publish by Karen Kelsky who writes The Professor is In.

As of last week, the NSF has gotten more formal in their stance about harassment on their dime. In particular, Important Notice No. 144 spells out the three major changes effective in their new policy:

  1. If a PI, co-PI or other person funded by a grant is found to have harassed, this must be reported to the NSF. Then the agency has the right to take unilateral action such as suspending the grant, killing the grant, or removing people from the grant.
  2. Organizations that are funded by the NSF are expected to have clear and formal structures in place for dealing with the reporting and investigation of harassment.
  3. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion is launching a new website to make handling these sorts of things as easy and transparent as possible.

Two things that bear mentioning. The first, is that the NSF is only made aware if there is a finding of harassment after a formal investigation or if the person being investigated is put on administrative leave as a consequence of the investigation. So, due process. Also worth pointing out, it doesn’t look like the NSF is requiring any harassment-type analogue to the disclosure of current and pending support as part of their application. These policies are only relevant to individuals who already hold NSF grants. Oh to be so blessed.

In this vein, Izabella Laba who blogs as The Accidental Mathematician recently wrote a post for the men in math who are bothered by the recent revelations (and want to do better). She tackles (brilliantly in my opinion) some of the tough questions about due process and the advocacy that women so desperately need. She clarifies the difference between a friendly touch and career-derailing harassment and the historical absence of formal structures to separate and deal with the two. This is where items 2 and 3 in the new NSF guidelines are very helpful.

The NSF Office of Diversity and Inclusion also put out their own bulletin, reminding people, “if in doubt, reach out.” This would probably be a good time to brush up on your Title IX FAQs and take a moment to remind yourself what harassment looks like. And after you do that, find someone junior to you and have a conversation letting them know how seriously you take this sort of thing.

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