An Update on Sexual Harassment at the NSF and NIH
In September 2018, the National Science Foundation (NSF) published new requirements concerning sexual harassment, other harassment, and sexual assault. Sexual harassment includes but is not limited to gender or sex-based harassment, unwelcome sexual attention, and sexual coercion. Other harassment is harassment against an individual on the basis of an actual or perceived characteristic that is protected under federal civil rights laws (e.g., race/color, age, disability, etc.).
Pursuant to these regulations, institutions that receive NSF funds must promptly and thoroughly investigate complaints. Additionally, MUSC will be required to notify NSF whenever a Principal Investigator (PI) or co-PI whose work is funded by NSF (1) has violated MUSC’s policies against harassment or sexual assault; (2) has violated laws, regulations, or executive orders relating to harassment or sexual assault; or (3) is subjected to administrative leave or administrative action, such as a restriction on teaching, advising, mentoring, research, management, or presence on campus, in connection with an allegation of harassment or sexual assault. Although other personnel who are supported by an NSF award must also remain in compliance with all the laws and internal policies related to harassment and sexual assault, MUSC is not required to report its response to complaints against those individuals.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) similarly requires that every institution that receives NIH funds has systems in place for addressing harassment and inappropriate conduct. The NIH recommends for such policies and procedures to be as rigorous as their own policy manual. Much like the NSF, the NIH also requires institutions like MUSC to report any administrative actions that remove key personnel on an NIH award in connection with a complaint of harassment.
In late February, NIH released a statement about its plans to address sexual harassment in science. As part of that effort, a working group was formed to help change the culture and end sexual harassment in the scientific community. In June 2019, the working group released an interim report with the following four recommendations for institutions that receive NIH funding: (1) treat sexual harassment and other forms of professional misconduct as seriously as research misconduct; (2) require PIs to attest that they have not violated and will not violate their institution’s professional code of conduct; (3) establish mechanisms for survivors of sexual harassment to restore their careers; and (4) develop new ways to allow trainees and junior investigators to be independent from their mentors. A final report is expected to be release in December 2019.
It is encouraging that two of the biggest funding agencies have focused their attention on trying to eliminate sexual harassment in science and biomedical research. Institutions of higher education, such as MUSC, are already subject to federal nondiscrimination laws, including Title VII and Title IX. We also have robust policies and procedures for responding to complaints of harassment, discrimination, and sexual assault. But, the establishment of the recent NSF regulations and the NIH working group is a step in the right direction to ensuring that all research environments are free from sexual harassment.