NSF Just Made It A Lot Harder for Universities to Harbor Harassers
After years of threats, NSF finally took steps to make good on its promise to stop funding faculty found guilty of sexually harassing, retaliating and assaulting members of the science community.
Armed with a decade’s worth of data, #MeToo stories, Congressional pressure and public outrage, NSF chief France Córdova announced universities must report NSF funded investigators found guilty of Title IX violations. Until now, universities could continue to pay faculty using NSF funds even if faculty were on administrative leave while being investigated. In addition to finding of violations, NSF guidelines now require universities to report individuals who are placed on leave while they are being investigated.
These changes are the first substantial response from NSF, which has long held a ‘no tolerance for sexual harassment’ credo without actually enforcing any consequences for either those who violated the policy or universities that harbored harassers. It remains to be determined what the consequences will be for institutions that have an individual who has been found guilty of harassing, retaliating against or assaulting colleagues. Other steps, such as requiring universities to determine if faculty members have a past history of Title IX violations and have managed to evade national attention by moving from university to university, as was the case with NIH-funded Jason Lieb.
In 2016, molecular biologist serial harasser Lieb was fired from the University of Chicago after raping an incapacitated graduate student at a work retreat. Lieb had moved in rapid succession from UNC to Princeton to the University of Chicago trailed by a series of open Title IX investigations.
Increasingly, sexual harassment is being construed as scientific misconduct as harassers seek to shore up their careers at the expense of victims, fail to create safe spaces for scientific inquiry and appear to be impervious to efforts to retrain them. In late 2017, the American Geophysical Union was the first scientific society to define harassment as misconduct, but pressure is growing on other scientific groups to follow suit and further isolate harassers.
Notably absent from the discussion was Francis Collins, head of NIH, the largest federal funding body in the US. Collins, Michael Lauer and Hannah Valantine wrote a Correspondence to Nature in 2016 entitled “NIH: Push To Stop Sexual Harassment” in which they poked meeting organizers to be more vigilant in promoting awareness of harassment at meetings funded by the agency. Since then, there has been no further action from Collins.
The gap between NIH and NSF policy was greeted with a salty reply from neuroscience researcher and reluctant Title IX reform advocate, BethAnn McLaughlin. “I think it’s safe to say that Collin’s two year hiatus from even putting in lip service to ending harassment is demoralizing at best. Seeing #MeToo and Time Magazine going so far as to name NIH funded investigators as Women of the Year for taking on harassment while Collin’s does nothing to help their careers is baffling. This man holds the power to end this legacy of shame and yet does nothing to punish universities that harbor harassers. Are we supposed to take solace that if we stay on the road enough and hop from NIH funded meeting to NIH funded meeting, harassment won’t be tolerated in those venues? That’s sort of gross.”