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By Alexis Wolfe
With the research community and Congress calling strongly for action, some federal agencies and scientific societies have begun to advance new initiatives to combat sexual harassment in science.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has taken some of the quickest steps, implementing a new policy in October requiring institutions to report any findings of sexual harassment committed by an NSF-funded principal investigator (PI) or co-PI. The policy does not require institutions to report the initiation of investigations into harassment complaints, but it does require them to report certain actions, such as if an accused individual is placed on administrative leave during an investigation.
Based on the information reported, NSF may remove the PI or co-PI from the grant, reduce the funding amount, or, when neither option is appropriate, suspend or terminate the grant.
“This new policy is intended to provide targeted, serious consequences for harassers. It gives people tools to make harassment stop without disturbing others’ careers and lives,” said NSF Director France Córdova in a statement on the new policy.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also announced initiatives to address sexual harassment, which include establishing a centralized process for managing harassment reports for its intramural research program as well as launching a website that details its policies and efforts to address misconduct.
NIH has been criticized for not taking stronger actions, particularly for its extramural grant programs.
Following the release of NSF’s new policy, NIH Director Francis Collins said that certain “legal constraints” prevent the agency from implementing similar reporting requirements without undergoing a formal rulemaking process. Currently, NIH-funded institutions must report if grantees are placed on administrative leave or removed from their position, but they are not required to report findings of harassment.
Meanwhile, there are increasing calls for the government to take more comprehensive action.
Kelvin Droegemeier, the nominee to direct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), has expressed support for an interagency effort. At his confirmation hearing in August, he said NSF’s actions have “put an important stake in the ground,” and that OSTP could “promulgate” similar efforts across R&D funding agencies.
In Congress, the House Science Committee has requested a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on how sexual harassment claims are handled across the government and recommended actions agencies should consider, such as clarifying their ability to replace PIs based on allegations or findings of sexual misconduct.
A number of Democrats on the Science Committee have introduced legislation that would expand NSF support for research on sexual harassment in the scientific workforce and create an interagency working group to coordinate policy responses. The bill has been endorsed by over a dozen scientific societies, including APS.
Scientific societies have also mobilized to address the problem. The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently established procedures for revoking the status of elected fellows in response to breaches of professional ethics, including sexual misconduct and harassment.
Some societies, such as the American Geophysical Union and American Astronomical Society, have already implemented policies to combat harassment by their members. Many others are preparing their own response. For instance, APS is in the process of updating its ethics statement and is proposing to form a standing committee on ethics that will address sexual harassment, among other topics.
Leaders from dozens of scientific societies, including APS, convened in October to discuss sexual harassment, the first time so many societies have gathered to discuss action on the issue. They intend to form a consortium in the coming months that will develop model policies and a resource toolkit that societies can use to help craft their own responses.
The author is a science policy analyst with FYI at the American Institute of Physics.
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