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Agency takes action against sexual harassment

RomoloThe National Science Foundation (NSF), the primary research funding agency in the United States, has announced a set of measures to combat sexual harassment in the academic environment, including a requirement that scientific and higher education institutions notify the NSF when researchers funded by the agency are accused of harassment. “In the past, universities were not required to inform us about allegations of sexual harassment or when researchers were being investigated,” NSF director France Córdova told Nature magazine. Institutions must report whenever a grantee is placed on administrative leave in relation to a harassment investigation, and the agency may suspend or terminate their funding, depending on the outcome. The new policy also requires that institutions establish standards to prevent harassment in workplaces, including conferences or field studies at remote sites, where students and young researchers are often most vulnerable. The NSF advised institutions to create an environment where researchers, staff, and students can report violations without fear of reprisal.

The measures will come into force in April. The agency has created a new website that lists its policies and procedures against sexual harassment. “It’s a big step in the right direction,” Erika Marin-Spiotta, a biogeochemist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who leads an NSF-funded initiative to combat sexual harassment in the sciences, told Nature. However, one weak point of the new policy, she says, is that it does not address what happens if an institution never completes an investigation.

Córdova described the changes as an extension of previous strategies to combat the problem, including a 2016 statement reminding NSF awardees that universities receiving federal funding must comply with the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which prohibits sexual discrimination. Although the NSF already oversees institutions’ compliance with legislation, the agency often has to rely on media reports to find out about sexual harassment cases involving its grantees. “That’s a pretty poor way to find out about something,” said Córdova.

Like other federal agencies, the NSF is under pressure from US Congress to strengthen its response to sexual harassment at universities. In January, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology asked the Government Accountability Office—the agency responsible for auditing, evaluating, and investigating US Congress—to report on cases of sexual harassment involving federally funded researchers at agencies such as the NSF, NASA, the Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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