The National Science Foundation’s New Policy on Reporting Harassment

by Joanna Bridge on March 14, 2018

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has recently developed a new policy on reporting harassment. These rules are meant to address the ongoing problem of sexual harassment in academia. For example, one study found that 30% of postdocs have reported being sexually harassed in the workplace. Another crowdsourced spreadsheet has garnered almost 2500 responses since December 2017 with reports of sexual harassment or assault across many fields of academia.

With these new reporting rules, the NSF hopes to provide clearer conditions for reporting sexual harassment and to better track its grantees. From the NSF notice published on March 5, 2018:

We consider the Principal investigator (PI) and any co-PI(s) identified on an NSF award to be in positions of trust… This term and condition will make it clear that NSF may take unilateral action as necessary to protect the safety of all grant personnel, to include suspending or terminating an award or requiring the grantee to replace or remove personnel.

One outworking of this policy is that it requires institutions to have good reporting policies in place, something that is currently lacking at many places. The NSF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion states explicitly on their website:

NSF expects all awardee organizations to establish and maintain clear and unambiguous standards of behavior to ensure harassment-free workplaces wherever science is conducted, including notification pathways for all personnel, including students, on the primary and supplemental awards. This expectation includes activities at all research facilities and field sites and during conferences and workshops.

This will hopefully result in institutions having a better sense of the conditions of its research groups. Increased reporting could also enable the institution to take proactive actions to take care of problematic situations before they reach the level of a formal human resources investigation, the outcomes of which may jeopardize funding.

Another thing that is not explicitly mentioned in the policy, but which seems like a clear consequence, is that the NSF will have a record of people who have been found in violation of harassment policies even if they change institutions. This seems like an extremely powerful first step in combating the problem of serial harassers going from one institution to another. Due to privacy and legal issues, institutions cannot share details of any investigations or violations with prospective new institutions.

The NSF is requesting comments on these new reporting requirements. These comments should be addressed to Suzanne H. Plimpton, Reports Clearance Officer, Office of the General Counsel at splimpto@nsf.gov. The deadline for comments is May 4, 2018. They will no doubt receive comments from institutions worried about how this will work in practice, but if you think this is a worthwhile step in the right direction, send in a short note of support! Let’s be sure the NSF knows that we appreciate their efforts to combat this pervasive problem in our field.

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