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The National Science Foundation Is Still Months Away From Finalizing Its Policy on Harassers—but It's Enforcing the New Rules Anyway

Scientists found to have harassed colleagues or subordinates are now open to having their NSF grants revoked.
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The National Science Foundation headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

The National Science Foundation headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

Although its new anti-harassment policy isn't formally in place yet—and won't be for more than two months—the National Science Foundation is already acting to implement the modified rules, NSF staffers said in a congressional hearing on Tuesday.

Last week, officials at the research funding agency learned that a university had put a scientist on administrative leave because of an allegation of sexual harassment. "Within two hours, we were able to be on the telephone with the university and to begin addressing it right now, before the policy," Rhonda Davis, the head of the NSF's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said during Tuesday's meeting.

The NSF unveiled the planned new policy less than three weeks ago. It entails requiring any universities that receive NSF grants to notify the agency if one of the school's funded researchers is found guilty of sexual or other harassment, or is put on leave because of a harassment investigation. The policy will "make it clear" that the NSF has the right to suspend or revoke a grant, or replace people in a funded lab, "as necessary to protect the safety of all grant personnel," the agency's announcement says. Universities have never before had to notify the NSF, or any other science-funding agency, if they found that a faculty member had harassed colleagues or lab members.

"AGU thinks it's a very positive first step," says Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, an association for Earth scientists. The AGU adopted a policy last year that lets the society investigate allegations of harassment, and revoke awards or membership as a result.

The NSF's policy isn't technically in effect yet. The agency still has to publish its public first draft, then allow 60 days for public comment, according to federal law. After that, NSF staffers have to read all the comments and incorporate them into their rule. But, in the meantime, Davis says, even if the office learns about a qualifying harassment case through an avenue other than its not-yet-existent reporting pipeline—such as news reports or whistleblower calls—"we will still implement right now."

Davis' testimony on Tuesday to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology comes after the committee investigated NSF and NASA grants received by David Marchant, an Antarctic researcher whom Boston University found to have sexually harassed one of his former graduate students, calling her by crude, sexist slurs. (Marchant denies he acted inappropriately and is appealing the finding. If he fails, he'll lose his position, the Boston Globe reports.) The committee obtained emails—which Representative Barry Loudermilk (R-Georgia) projected onto three large television screens during the public hearing—showing that Boston University informed the NSF of its findings on December 5th, 2017. NSF program officers then told the university they didn't have to take Marchant off his federal grant. "It wasn't until January 25th that the NSF got clarification from upper management that Dr. Marchant was required to be removed as principal investigator of the grant," Loudermilk said. "Why did it take so long?"

Davis blamed the silo-ing of work at the NSF, with grants staff not communicating with Title IX staff, who investigate sex discrimination in schools, and who have long had the authority to work with universities to get them to replace scientists on NSF grants. The NSF has communicated with all its workers about how to best handle Title IX complaints, Davis said during the hearing. "This is unacceptable for us and it's a lesson learned."

The NSF's upcoming policy marks the beginning of the end of a long road when it comes to harassment in science. Science's Harvey Weinstein moment arguably came way back in 2015, when BuzzFeed reported on accusations against famed astronomer Geoff Marcy. One of BuzzFeed's early articles on Marcy noted he had an NSF grant, but that his institution, the University of California–Berkeley, didn't answer questions about what would happen to it. More than two years later, the field has an agency-wide policy to help answer.

America's other major science-funding agencies, including NASA and the National Institutes of Health, have yet to publicize anything similar, although spokespeople for both told The New Republic earlier this month that they're "bolstering" or "enhancing" their anti-harassment policies. Should they do so, it'll be an important check on harassing behavior, supporters say. Sexual harassment happens in every field, as we've seen since the Weinstein news. What's different about academic science is that it's so often taxpayer funded—and tenured professors aren't as easily fired as a harasser at a private company might be, says Kristina Larsen, a lawyer specializing in human resources at universities who also testified to the House science committee. "The real challenge in academia is in finding those consequences," she says. Grant revocations is one important one.

As for the case the NSF learned about last week, it found that, despite being on leave, the scientist "is still able to fulfill the conditions of the award," Davis writes to Pacific Standard in a follow-up email exchange. That is, the leave apparently didn't affect whatever research the award was given to the scientist to perform, so the grant stands. "The NSF is monitoring the situation closely," Davis adds.