America's Science Agencies' Sexual Harassment Policies Are Still Super Confusing, an Investigation Finds

A few years into science's #MeToo movement, the government agencies that fund American science are still working on solidifying rules meant to keep harassers from working with students, and to deter harassment in the future.
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The National Science Foundation headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

The National Science Foundation headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

If a scientist sexually harasses or discriminates against his students, and he leads a government-funded research project, does he get to continue working on that project? If his employer—say, a university, or a research institute—gets complaints and starts investigating them, does it have to tell its government funder? At what point does the money shut off?

As science's #MeToo movement has matured, activists and politicians have pushed for accused harassers to be removed from grants, and for grant-makers to be notified. Such actions would protect students and prevent future bad behavior, they argue. "It will help deter sexual harassment if universities have to worry that covering it up will result not just in local scandal and lawsuits but losing government funding," Ann Olivarius, a lawyer who has worked frequently on cases involving sexual harassment at universities, said in a statement that she sent to me last year.

But how these policies actually play out at America's science agencies varies wildly, according to a new report, released on Wednesday. Some agencies' policies hardly talk about sexual harassment. All this makes it harder for universities to know what to do and how to effectively deal with harassers, according to university administrators who testified at a hearing, held by the House of Representatives' Science, Space, and Technology Committee, on Wednesday.

"While we want to ensure that we are holding individuals who have engaged in gender-based harassment or sexual harassment accountable, we also feel very strongly about the importance of due process," Jean Morrison, provost at Boston University, said during the hearing. "In trying to balance those two, the absence of those guidelines just made it very much harder." Two years ago, Morrison's office had to decide what to do with National Science Foundation grants led by David Marchant, a geologist who the university found had sexually harassed a student in 1999 and 2000.

Even those agencies that have explicit harassment policies have received few complaints about harassment, suggesting they're getting a slow start in enacting those policies. NASA, for example, has fielded just three direct complaints in the last five years. The National Institutes of Health has received one. A recent survey found that at least one in five female science students experiences harassment from a staff or faculty member at their university.

The National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Institutes of Health all have lots of documents and relatively clear rules, detailing how the institutions they fund can prevent harassment and report it, John Neumann, an analyst with the Government Accountability Office, told lawmakers. These policies are generally new, triggered by media and political attention to cases like Marchant's, over the past two years. Two other agencies Neumann reviewed, the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, didn't have much in the way of harassment policies for grantees. (The Department of Energy says it's working on a policy, according to Neumann's report.)

What happens when a funding agency doesn't have clear harassment policies for its grant recipients?

Boston University first decided that harassment complaints against Marchant had merit and placed him on leave in December of 2017. At the time, the National Science Foundation hadn't yet updated its policy. "It really revealed that neither we nor NSF knew what the right steps were to take," Morrison recalled. In emails the House Science Committee obtained, NSF staffers gave Boston University administrators conflicting information about what should be done about Marchant's grant, even after the university suggested a solution that's now popular among activists: that the university replace Marchant as a leader on the grant, so that a student dependent on the grant could continue their research and complete their master's degree.

In the fall of 2018, I tried to uncover what happened with the National Institutes of Health grant led by Francisco Ayala, a biologist found by the University of California–Irvine to have harassed other professors and an assistant dean. The grant was for mentoring underrepresented minority undergraduates. It's not clear if the National Institutes of Health knew anything about UC–Irvine's investigation until after the chancellor made a public announcement, and the Los Angeles Times and others reported on the story. That was a month and a half after university investigators wrote up a report with their conclusions, and eight months after the university first placed Ayala on leave.

"[The Department of Energy], NASA, NIH, and NSF stated they rarely learn about instances of sexual harassment from voluntary reporting from universities and other federal agencies and instead must rely on other sources, such as news reports," Neumann writes in his report.

The agencies Neumann examined are working toward more uniform and detailed policies. In May, the White House's science office created a working group with the idea of developing one overarching federal policy about reporting sexual harassment in government-funded labs. Neumann, meanwhile, is not finished with his investigation, which former House representatives Lamar Smith (R–Texas) and Barbara Comstock (R–Virginia) had requested in September. Comstock lost her seat in the mid-term elections, and Smith retired, but the House Science Committee appears to be carrying their work on, as is Neumann.*

*Update—June 14th, 2019: This post has been updated to reflect that Lamar Smith retired from his seat in Congress.

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