A science lab (Image: AP)

The National Science Foundation will require the institutions it funds to report findings of sexual or any other kind of harassment involving a principle investigator, according to a notice passed to Presidents of NSF Grantee organizations.

Sexual harassment cases have rocked universities across the United States, such as the recent high-profile case involving students and professors at the University of Rochester. As a major funder of scientific research, the NSF has stated that it does not tolerate sexual harassment. Many scientists Gizmodo spoke to agree that this is just a first step—but an important one.

“It sends a message,” Raychelle Burks, assistant professor at the St. Edward’s University in Texas told Gizmodo. “Get your house in order.”

The science world has been reckoning with its sexual harassment problem in the wake of high-profile cases involving professors at the University of California, Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History, and Texas Tech. Most recently, students and faculty members accused brain and cognitive sciences professor Florian Jaeger of sexual harassment in a highly-publicized case. Researchers around the country have been calling for reform at universities, scientist societies, and other agencies in order to change the culture.

The NSF notice published this morning listed several actions that would be taken. First, the agency has developed a new condition for its grants requiring that organizations report sexual or any other kind of harassment involving a principle investigator or other person on the grant. The NSF will also expect its organizations to “maintain clear and unambiguous standards of behavior to ensure harassment-free workplaces.”


Statements from overarching agencies like these are important. “This is exactly the kind of transparency and accountability we’ve been looking for,” Jessica Cantlon, one of the lead complainants on the University of Rochester case, told Gizmodo. “Universities are motivated to reduce financial losses, and will take sexual harassment more seriously when grant money is on the line.”

And Jacqueline Gill, Assistant Professor in the School of Biology and the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, told Gizmodo that the NSF ruling was important simply for moving the needle when it comes to handling these issues. “It’s been too easy to dismiss these incidents as isolated or all in women’s heads. To have big sweeping policies at the most respected institutions really legitimizes what we’ve been saying for a long time.”

Others have expressed concern that the move might backfire. “I worry that an unintended consequence of this is to further disincentive institutions from taking sexual harassment claims seriously for fear of losing funding,” Maryam Zaringhalam, a 500 Women Scientists National Leadership Member told Gizmodo. All of the scientists I spoke to referred to the move as a first step—and there’s a lot more work left to do. Celeste Kidd, Brain & Cognitive Sciences professor from the University of Rochester pointed out the potential issue of optics. “If a university finds sexual harassment, it faces potential bad press, so it is incentivized not to. This NSF decision could magnify this conflict if precautions are not taken to prevent that.” She thought that this issue was apparent in the University of Rochester case.


But there’s work beyond gender inequality. “I hope to see them take action that similarly works to curb the racism which harms so many scientists of color both professionally and personally,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, postdoctoral Research Associate in theoretical physics at the University of Washington, Seattle told Gizmodo. “Women and gender minorities of color bear the brunt of the scientific community’s failure to redress sexism and racism. It is time for a level playing field.”

Ultimately, fighting sexual harassment and inequality in science is about changing a culture, and it takes more than just one policy to do it.

“The NSF isn’t in a position to solve all the infrastructure problems,” said Gill. “Universities need to have clearer reporting mechanisms, science societies need to have effective policies at conferences for behavior. Individual scientists need to step up and make sure they have conversations with their trainees and create climates in their labs that are safe and welcoming for everyone.”



This story has been updated to include a quote from Celeste Kidd.