By Laura M. Szymanski, GSA Science Policy Fellow

Today, the National Science Foundation (NSF) released new policies for awards to address issues of sexual harassment.  This change signifies the first step the federal funding agency has taken, and more actions are expected in the future.  Starting 21 October, institutions must notify the NSF of any findings of harassment by the principal investigator (PI) or co-PI(s) of a NSF grant.

NSF Notice
Notice by the National Science Foundation (NSF) concerning Notification Requirements Regarding Findings of Sexual Harassment, Other Forms of Harassment, or Sexual Assault available in the Federal Register

This action comes with growing awareness of the reach of sexual harassment in academic sciences.  The NSF is the primary funder of fundamental research in the U.S., and thus has an opportunity to contribute significantly to eliminating sexual harassment in the sciences.

On January 25, 2016, the NSF released a statement that it would not tolerate harassment at grantee institutions.   The NSF contributed to a comprehensive report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to study sexual harassment in academia, specifically ‘the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment in science, engineering and medical departments and programs’.  The report, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, was published in June of 2018.  The report reviews the extent of sexual harassment in the sciences and the extent that sexual harassment impedes science, as well as the strategies most effective at addressing sexual harassment.

NAS Report cover
2. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s report, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Prior to the release of this study, the NSF sought comments on a proposed a change in its grant terms and conditions, which received 192 comments from a broad range of perspectives.  The revised, final policy reflects these comments by including 1) a definition of harassment that was based on the study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences for clarity and 2) a broadening of the notification process to include reporting when an institution takes administrative action during an investigation to provide better safety and security.

The NSF has over 40,000 active awards, yet this new term and condition will only apply to newly-granted awards and funding amendments to existing grants.  While the revised terms and conditions will only apply to new grants, it will still cover any harassment event that occurred prior to 21 October.

The NSF will require that the home institution of an NSF grant award notify the NSF within 10 business days of a finding of harassment of the PI or co-PI, but notifying the NSF of when an investigation begins or an allegation has been made is not required. Additionally, the institution must notify the NSF of any administrative actions taken, even if this is done before an investigation is completed.

During a panel discussion on the updated policy, it was stressed that NSF will take every action to preserve the grant prior to terminating the award. Based on consultations with the institution, the NSF will determine the appropriate action to be taken, which may include the removal and or removal and substitution of the PI or co-PI or a reduction of the award.

Other federal agencies are developing policies as well. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a policy to provide guidance to managers on allegations of sexual harassment, Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response Policy and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a website to address sexual harassment at NIH and NIH supported research.

Congress also continues to investigate. After holding a hearing, The House Science, Space and Technology released its report which identifies gaps in existing laws, inconsistencies in how sexual harassment allegations are handled among federal agencies, and a lack of policies preventing federal dollars from being distributed to scientists who have been found to have violated rules of conduct.