The NSF is taking action against sexual harassment in science

Editor’s Note: This will be the first of two pieces by the AMS Office of Government Relations AY2017-18 student interns. Abby Quick is working on her M.A. in Mathematics at American University. She is recipient of the 2017 Hanna Miriam Sandler and Bella Sandler Scholarship Award.

As part of a growing movement in the scientific community—and society at large—the National Science Foundation (NSF) is taking action to combat sexual harassment in research environments. The agency is the primary funding source for fundamental science and engineering research in the United States, and thus has power to influence science culture by affecting policies and practices at institutions across the country. In a notice released February 8th, the agency announced they are taking the following steps:

  • proposing new reporting requirements for incidents of assault and harassment;
  • setting expectations that grantee organizations have clear standards of behavior and notification pathways for all personnel under a funded project; and
  • creating a web portal with resources to help institutions develop policies, procedures, and codes of conduct that promote a safe and equitable research environment.

Photo by Jeanne Theismann.

Under the proposed reporting policy, a new term and condition for awards would require organizations to report to the agency any findings that a Principal Investigator (PI), co-PI, or any other grant personnel violated the organization’s policies on sexual harassment, any other kind of harassment, or sexual assault. Awardees would also be required to report if they place a PI or co-PI on administrative leave relating to a harassment finding or investigation. The agency then has the authority to remove or replace the individual in question, or to suspend, terminate, or reduce funding.

The NSF has long had the authority to intervene, but they could only act when an incident was voluntarily reported; the new policy would make reporting a requirement. The web portal will give individuals the ability to report incidents or investigations directly to NSF in the event that an organization is not responding appropriately to a complaint.

In February, Rhonda Davis, head of the NSF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI), discussed the agency’s efforts at a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, entitled “A Review of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct in Science.” She expressed the agency’s goal to “eliminate unsafe research environments that upset the whole balance of the science ecosystem, harm our scientists, and impede the very progress of science itself.”

Experts testifying on the issue of sexual harassment in the sciences before the Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science Committee. Left to right: Rhonda Davis, Kathryn Clancy, Kristina Larsen, and Christine McEntee. (Image credit: National Science Foundation)

Witnesses at the hearing discussed how the hierarchical nature of academic research can perpetuate a culture of abuse. The student-advisor paradigm, for example, means a student is often reliant on a single superior for support and career advancement. Therefore, if an advisor is not responsive to complaints of abuse or is him/herself the abuser, a student may have trouble finding a pathway to reporting or could face consequences that jeopardize his/her career. If the abuser is prominent in the research community or a big money-maker for the university, other faculty and administrators may also dismiss complaints, sweep them under the rug, or retaliate against victims.

At the hearing, Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL-3) expressed concern that the NSF’s new reporting requirements could “chill investigations of assault.” He wondered whether universities, out of fear of losing star researchers or compromising grant money, might be reluctant to report findings or even to initiate investigations in the first place, lest they find misconduct they would be required to report.

Ms. Davis explained that the agency’s new web portal allows anyone to report incidents and investigations directly to the NSF, whether it be a victim of abuse, a faculty member, a professional society, etc. She noted that the agency considered the possibility of this chilling effect, but they believe that, in the midst of this cultural movement to eradicate sexual harassment, a university’s decision to cover up abuses “could be at their own peril.”

The NSF is seeking public comment on the proposed reporting requirement through May 4th.



About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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