Top US science agency unveils hotly anticipated harassment policy

The National Science Foundation says institutions it supports must disclose when researchers are found to have violated policies or are put on leave pending investigation.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has unveiled its long-awaited policy to fight harassment by the scientists whose research it supports. Starting on 21 October, institutions that receive NSF grants must notify the agency of any finding related to harassment — including sexual harassment or sexual assault — by principal investigators (PIs) or co-PIs. Actions that must be reported include putting a scientist on leave during an investigation.

The rule will apply to all new grants and any extensions to existing grants made on or after that date. The NSF first proposed the policy in February, and received nearly 200 public comments on its initial draft.

It is the strictest action yet by a US research-funding agency on the topic of sexual harassment. On 17 September, the National Institutes of Health said that it would introduce a centralized system for reporting harassment, but it has not imposed any new conditions on the grants it hands out.

Experts say that the NSF policy is a good first step, but far from a final one. “This rule is wonderful news and goes beyond what I expected,” says Jane Willenbring, a geologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, who has worked to improve safety at NSF-funded field sites, such as those in Antarctica. But she says that the NSF should consider investigating harassment complaints itself, rather than relying on the alleged perpetrator’s academic institution to do the job.

Erika Marín-Spiotta, a geoscientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says that she would have liked to have seen the NSF policy apply to current grants, not just those awarded or extended after 21 October. The new rule, she says, “is the bare minimum requirement” of what is needed.

NSF director France Córdova says the rule will not be the agency’s final action against harassment. “NSF does not consider its work in trying to address harassment finished,” she says.

Mandatory disclosure

The rule will require an institution to notify the NSF within ten business days if it finds that a PI or co-PI on an NSF grant has committed harassment. Institutions are also required to report when they take any administrative action related to a harassment finding or investigation, such as putting a PI or co-PI on leave. The NSF policy does not, however, require institutions to notify the agency when they begin an investigation. “There’s a delicate balance between receiving complaints and the due process people are entitled to,” says Córdova. “An actual finding of determination is something concrete we can take action on.”

Roughly 2,000 universities and other research institutions receive NSF funding. They are already legally responsible for complying with federal civil-rights laws — including the Title IX legislation that bars discrimination on the basis of sex, which has been widely used to battle sexual harassment and assault on campus. Many people do not report harassment through their home institutions, however, because they fear retaliation or assume that an investigation will not be thorough, Marín-Spiotta notes. The NSF’s new policy allows people to report harassment directly to the agency in addition to, or rather than, going through an institution.

Since it first proposed the reporting rule in February, the NSF has received “five or six” notifications from institutions of findings involving harassment by grantees, and “probably at least twice that” number of notifications from individuals who have encountered or witnessed harassment involving grantees, says Robert Cosgrove, a compliance programme manager at the NSF.

Reports of harassment involving NSF grantees can be filed online at nsf.gov/harassment. Rhonda Davis, head of the NSF Office of Diversity and Inclusion, says she has added several staff members who are experienced in dealing with harassment to work on the reports.

Asked explicitly about bullying, Córdova noted that it is covered under “other forms of harassment” in the NSF rule.

Broader action

The push to deal with harassment in science continues to expand. On 15 September, the governing council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC, voted to establish procedures to revoke fellowship honours for scientists found to have committed misconduct or ethical breaches, including harassment. And Congress has asked the US Government Accountability Office to open an investigation into how the various government funding agencies deal with sexual harassment involving their grantees.

Cordova says that the NSF and other agencies are waiting for the Senate to confirm a director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to help coordinate anti-harassment efforts across agencies. Kelvin Droegemeier, a meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, has been nominated to that post, but is not yet confirmed.

Nature 561, 444-445 (2018)

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