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Report harassment or risk losing funding, says top UK science funder

The Wellcome Trust vows to pull grants if researchers or institutions do not abide by its new misconduct policy.

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Wellcome Trust roof area

The Wellcome Trust, whose London headquarters is shown here, may block grants to researchers found to have bullied or harassed colleagues.Matt Brown/Flickr/CC by 2.0

One of the world’s largest research-funding charities is cracking down on harassment and bullying. Scientists who have been sanctioned by their institutions could lose out on funding from the Wellcome Trust, under rules announced on 3 May.

It is the first major UK research funder to institute such a policy; the US National Science Foundation introduced a similar rules earlier this year.

Wellcome’s policy will come into force for new grant applications on 1 June, and will apply to anyone already associated with a grant, including those whose projects are already under way. It gives Wellcome, a biomedical-research charity in London, the right to withhold funding from a researcher or bar them from applying for future grants.

It also levies sanctions against institutions that fail to disclose details of such misconduct, do not investigate allegations in a timely and fair manner, or take inappropriate action. In extreme circumstances, sanctions could include suspending funding from an entire organization.

Zero tolerance

“Bullying and harassment are just plain wrong,” says Alyson Fox, director of grants at the charity. These behaviours are harmful and therefore affect the research that Wellcome funds, she adds. The policy “will give organizations notice that we are taking this extremely seriously”.

However, some researchers worry that the policy could discourage institutions that receive Wellcome funding from applying sanctions to their scientists.

The Wellcome Trust funded more than 900 grants, worth a total of more than £1 billion (US$1.4 billion), in 2017.

Under the new guidelines, Wellcome will require organizations that receive its funding to have clear policies that outline standards of acceptable behaviour by staff and procedures for responding to allegations of harassment and bullying.

The policy defines bullying as a misuse of power that can make people feel vulnerable, upset, humiliated, undermined or threatened. It says harassment is unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating someone else’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

Funding ban

Six types of sanction can be applied to grant holders and Wellcome advisory committee members whose employers have investigated and upheld an allegation of bullying or harassment against them. The actions include removing researchers from grants, and banning them from supervising Wellcome-funded PhD students or submitting future grant applications.

Institutions that do not abide by the policy risk being temporarily barred from applying for Wellcome grants. In extreme cases, they will have existing funded suspended, according to the policy.

The policy sends a signal that certain ethical standards must be met by researchers and organizations in exchange for funding, says Helene Schiffbaenker, a sociologist who studies gender in research and innovation at Joanneum Research in Graz, Austria. “This will help improve research culture as it attacks any power misuse.”

Emma Chapman, an astrophysicist and member of the 1752 group, which lobbies against sexual misconduct in higher education, calls the harassment policy an “excellent step forward”. However, she worries that it could lead universities to settle complaints informally to hide problems. The requirement to report only upheld allegations is understandable, Chapman adds, but it risks missing researchers who resign before an investigation is completed. These people could be free to take up new positions and continue their bullying or harassing ways.

“There is a serious problem with holding perpetrators of sexual misconduct, and the institutions that can enable their behaviour, to account,” says Chapman, who is at Imperial College London. If this policy is to work, it will require an overhaul of institutional disciplinary policies, she adds.

Change in culture

Salim Khakoo, director of biomedical research at the University of Southampton, UK, says that the policy sends the right message about addressing the culture in universities. But its effectiveness will rely on institutions being transparent, and some can be more tolerant of certain behaviours than others.

Philip Maini, a biological mathematician at the University of Oxford, UK, questions how effective the policy will be. Scientists are under extreme pressure to bring in grants and publish research papers, providing a fertile breeding ground for bullying and harassment, he says.

“If an institution has someone bringing in huge amounts of overhead and publishing in Nature and Science,” Maini says, “are they really going to take action against them if they are a bully? I think not.”

Nature 557, 149 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05071-7
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