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The Government Is Finally Cracking Down on Sexual Harassers in Science

The National Science Foundation on Wednesday announced a new, long-overdue policy, but it's far from enough.

Darren Hauck/Getty

During her first research trip abroad, Sarah Myhre was sexually harassed by her mentor. “He waited until I was one international flight and an eight-hour bus ride away from home and a twenty-minute walk into the jungle to make a pass at me,” the paleoceanographer wrote in a January article for Newsweek. “I declined his advances. I was there because I wanted to learn and advance professionally, not to be isolated and sexualized.” More than a decade later, she wrote, she’s finding herself envious of the many industries finally ridding themselves of serial abusers. As the headline on her piece asked, “When will science get its #MeToo movement?”

The answer may be now. On Thursday, the National Science Foundation—an independent government agency and one of the largest funders of research in America—will announce new sexual harassment reporting requirements for organizations that receive government grants. Under these requirements, universities and other institutions will have to tell NSF when principal investigators—senior-level scientists who oversee research projects and other scientists—have had an official finding of sexual misconduct against them or if they’ve been placed on administrative leave for a misconduct investigation. The new system relies on self-reporting by the university, but if NSF finds out that the university failed to report, the agency could cut off funding.

“We’re doing this to show that, in a very defined way, that NSF doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment or any form of harassment at any field sites,” NSF director France A. Córdova said on a call with reporters on Wednesday. “We believe that people who create hostile environments that are unsafe and disruptive really upset the whole balance of the scientific ecosystem, and discourage young scientists from contributing, and it can harm their careers and the progress of science.”

The changes come in response to concerns that principal investigators, or PIs, were still overseeing government-funded projects while they were subject to high-profile sexual misconduct investigations at their universities. Before these new requirements, universities were only required to tell NSF whether they were in compliance with Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded universities—not if there were official misconduct findings, or if a PI had been placed on leave. The way we find out about things, principally, is from the media,” Córdova said.That’s a pretty poor way to find out about something.”

But the new requirements don’t cover every concern. For example, universities won’t have to notify the government if a PI has been merely accused of sexual harassment. Córdova defended that decision on the Wednesday call. “I’m proud to be American in which due process is the law of the land, when people are considered innocent until proven guilty,” she said. She emphasized that there’s an exception to this rule if the professor is placed on leave, because that signifies the accusation is more serious or that professor’s presence in the lab was causing a problem. “That’s a big note to us that we should look at this more carefully.”

NSF is also not requiring itself to take any specific action after it receives a notification from a university. Córdova said this is because each research project is different, and NSF has to evaluate each individual situation. NSF’s action would depend on the type of research and the severity of misconduct: Grant money could be suspended permanently or temporarily, PIs could be replaced or removed, or PIs could be barred from any future funding. “We have a whole range of sanctions that we can apply depending on the details of the misconduct,” Córdova said. “We would consider the whole basket of sanctions to be available for us.”

Kristin Hook, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Maryland and member of 500 Women Scientists, has mixed feelings about the reforms. “It is an improvement, because they’re taking something into account that they hadn’t before,” she said. “There’s a ball that’s rolling now, and that’s good.” But it doesn’t ease her concerns about the fact that universities are still in control over investigations into their own scientists—scientists who often provide celebrity, prestige, and funding for the university. “I know personally of faculty members who serially harass students, who had charges filed against them, and the university claimed to have done an investigation and did nothing,” Hook said. “So I’m skeptical of any university’s ability to handle these cases.”

Some say NSF should implement stricter rules against accused harassers. Sarah Horst, an assistant professor of planetary science at Johns Hopkins University, said it should be easy to remove a PI from a research project without the project suffering. “If you’re a PI and you’re doing your job right, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow and the work can continue,” she said. But science, she said, often suffers from a “cult of personality” surrounding big-name researchers. “That’s where we get stuck on so many of these things: The idea that one person is so important to the progress of science that whatever shitty thing they do is excusable because they’re that important.”

Both Hook and Horst expressed disappointment that neither the National Institutes of Health or NASA, the other major government funders of scientific research, have announced similar reforms. Spokespeople for both agencies did not immediately respond to questions about whether they would do so. Still, the two women said that any action is better than none. Sarah Myhre, they agreed, is far from the only scientist with a horror story. “I’m glad they’re trying to do something,” Horst said. “Any step forward is at least something.” But she hopes it’s the first step on a very long path.

Update: After this article was published, both NASA and NIH pledged to update their respective sexual harassment reporting requirements for principal investigators. In e-mails to The New Republic, NIH spokesperson David Kosub said the agency “is in the process of bolstering our Anti-Harassment program, policy, communications, and support in this area,” and NASA spokesperson Karen Northon said that the agency “currently is considering means of further enhancing its policy requirements.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Sarah Myhre was sexually harassed during her first research trip as a paleoceanographer. The incident happened while she was an undergraduate student; she later became a paleoceanographer.