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What America's Science Agencies Are Doing About Harassment

Activists are putting the pressure on the federal government to leverage its money against alleged sexual harassers.
National Academy of Sciences Building in Washington, D.C.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine hosted leaders from major federal science agencies last month for an update on how they're handling sexual harassment at research institutions.

Speaking last month before an audience of hundreds of scientists and university staff—seemingly a majority of them women—officials from three major federal science agencies laid out what they are doing to prevent sexual harassment at universities and other research institutions.

Most of the announcements didn't offer much new information, but they provided an overview of what agencies have been doing over the past several months, as they've faced increased pressure to respond to claims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in universities.

Like many other industries, science has undergone its own #MeToo movement over the past few years, with numerous high-profile people being accused of harassment and some of them resigning over the allegations. But science has its own twist: University researchers, including accused harassers, often get thousands or even millions of dollars in federal money to perform research. In response, activists have demanded that the science agencies leverage the money to get scientists and their employers to behave better.

"The only thing that's going to change the way that we treat the most vulnerable people in our scientific and other societies is law and money," BethAnn McLaughlin, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Vanderbilt University, told me in August. "Our funding agencies have the money," she said. "When they start pulling money away from institutions that are harboring harassers, then the universities will start taking them seriously."

And so, on a cold and rainy Friday morning, leaders from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation spoke at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C., about their institutions' harassment policies. Together, these agencies gave out more than $30 billion in grants in 2017. A representative from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wasn't there because she was sick, said Tom Rudin, a staffer at the National Academies, a non-profit group that advises Congress on science and has been studying harassment. A representative from the Department of Education declined to join the panel when she heard journalists would be there, Rudin said.

The National Science Foundation had already gained attention earlier this year, when officials said they planned to start requiring institutions they fund to tell them if a scientist is put on leave for a harassment investigation. At the November event, Rhonda Davis, the head of the National Science Foundation's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said the NSF plans to study the effects of that new policy, which went into effect in October. "We're going to bring on a third party to help us with metrics and to evaluate that process, to make sure there's no harm done," she says. "If we need to change mid-stream, we will do that."

Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, pointed to a new website the NIH has put up, which collects information on the agency's existing policies around harassment and guidance on how people can report harassment. The NIH is also forming a working group to advise the agency's director, Francis Collins, on sexual harassment policy. McLaughlin has criticized the NIH specifically for not doing enough to address funded harassers, but Tabak said the agency does more than the public tends to see, including sometimes removing scientists from being grant leaders: "This is something that we do very actively, but we're just not extremely public about what we are doing."

Finally, David Chambers, civil rights program manager at NASA, gave some strong advice to the audience. If they're worried that they won't get a fair shake if they try to report harassment to their universities, then they should come directly to the federal government, he suggested:

You can have your case adjudicated directly with NASA, with NSF, with Department of Health and Human Services, with a host of other science agencies that award grants. All you have to do is make sure you file directly with that federal agency within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory action and you have thereby taken that power away from your institution and given it over to what will, hopefully, be a more objective adjudicator.

He even suggested taking a "shotgun approach," filing complaints with several agencies, thus upping the chances that one will have the resources to respond.

Kristina Larsen, a San Diego-based lawyer who often works on harassment and discrimination cases, thinks it was a "good step" for federal agencies to encourage scientists to report harassment directly to them. She believes submitting complaints to a group not affiliated with the university, where the accused harasser works, could often be helpful. But she's leery of advice that could create more work for someone seeking redress for what they thought was unfair treatment.

"To tell a woman, 'Well, what you need to do is report in multiple places' is just adding a significant burden," Larsen says. "What we need to be focusing on, collectively, is trying to find ways to take the burden off of targets."