New NSF Policy Could Jeopardize Funding for Research Projects Led by Sexual Harassers

Three scientists analyze a water sample from a lake.
The policy could create perverse incentives if universities don’t take harassment seriously.

A new policy from the National Science Foundation will require grant-receiving institutions to report if any researchers funded by that grant have been found responsible for sexual harassment. Universities will only have to inform the agency of sexual harassment allegations after an investigation finds the scientist culpable or places him or her on leave, which the NSF considers reason for extra concern because it is likely evidence that he or she might be a disruptive presence in the workplace.

The policy shift may have been spurred by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which tasked the Government Accountability Office in January with rooting out sexual harassment in research projects funded by the NSF and other federal grant-making agencies in the sciences. The committee had previously looked into chilling allegations against David Marchant, an NSF-funded geologist at Boston University, who was accused of sexually harassing multiple graduate students during research expeditions to Antarctica. Marchant denies the allegations and is appealing the implicating findings of BU’s investigation.

NSF has not laid out any definitive route of response it might take if confronted with a grant recipient who has sexually harassed his or her colleagues. France Córdova, the agency’s director, has said the NSF will evaluate each research project and set of allegations individually, after which the agency might suspend or cancel funding, ask the institution to take the perpetrator off the project, or ban perpetrators from receiving NSF funding in the future.

Prior to this new policy, which will go into effect after a 60-day period for public feedback, universities only had to confirm to the NSF that they complied with Title IX’s requirements for preventing sex discrimination and responding to sexual misconduct. According to Córdova, the agency wouldn’t find out about a principal investigator who’d been placed on leave for sexual harassment until someone read it in a news report.

The NSF’s decision marks an important step forward for efforts to stop harassment in the sciences, where big-name, poorly behaving researchers have often escaped accountability. If university administrators know a scientist who harasses students could cost the school its NSF funding, they’ll have one fewer reason to protect his or her career. A researcher’s ability to garner funding is a major factor in his worth to the school, making it difficult for institutions to fire perpetrators who bring in money and honors in the field.

But the policy announced by the agency on Thursday leaves a few gaping loopholes and ultimately may have little impact on the researchers it aims to protect. The responsibility will still lie with universities to investigate harassment allegations, a task on which they’ve notoriously dragged their feet in the past. Existing university policies on sexual harassment can vary widely, and some are wholly inadequate: When the University of Rochester came under fire for an EEOC complaint that alleged retaliation against professors and graduate students who reported sexual harassment, it came out that the alleged perpetrator, T. Florian Jaeger, had had sex with multiple current, former, and prospective students—but since they were all allegedly consensual and he wasn’t the students’ direct academic supervisor, the trysts didn’t violate the school’s policy.

The NSF policy could also create a few perverse, unintended incentives. If universities have to report when they’ve put principal investigators on leave, they may be less likely to take that potentially necessary step during an investigation. And an institution that loses funding because a scientist harassed his colleagues or students will also fail the rest of the project’s researchers, who may be less likely to report harassment by a supervisor if they think it could jeopardize their grants. Without continued pressure on universities to clean house and take swift action against known abusers, a threat to grant funding could hurt potential victims of harassment more than the perpetrators.