To address sexual harassment in science, the past can inform the way forward

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In late September, two major scientific bodies announced new policies aimed at curbing sexual harassment in academic research. The National Science Foundation (NSF) now requires institutions holding grants to report promptly whenever an agency-funded researcher accused of harassment undergoes administrative action or is judged guilty. The agency promises to take corrective action, up to and including removing the offender from a project or even ending the funding. AAAS (the publisher of Science Careers), meanwhile, has established a procedure for rescinding the status of fellows in cases of proven harassment or other serious ethical lapses.

These encouraging steps—part of a profound and wrenching cultural shift that extends far beyond the scientific community—bring to mind another September, in 1957, to be exact. The nation was undergoing another sweeping and painful realignment, this one aimed at dismantling the legal and social structures that had long kept African-American citizens subservient to whites. On the 25th of that month, millions of Americans watched a stunning spectacle unfold on their TV screens. Long columns of American soldiers stood guard, in battle dress with fixed bayonets, as nine teenagers walked into a school. After violent mobs of protesters had kept the youngsters from enrolling—pursuant to a court order—as the first black students at Little Rock Central High School, President Dwight Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to ensure compliance. Little Rock became an instant symbol of official commitment to enforcing school integration despite fierce resistance from some elements of society.

I’m not suggesting federal troops as the answer to the pervasive sexual harassment in science. The issue, however, demands its own strong and unambiguous federal action to force the recalcitrant to comply with laws banning discrimination and harassment. Without that, the power relationships that exist under the system of grant funding will likely allow some harassers to continue avoiding consequences while many victims continue to need relief.

A big enough deal?

Sexual harassment flourishes thanks to “significant power differentials within hierarchical organizations,” states the landmark National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine study on harassment in academic science issued in June. Given the vast power differences in academe, confronting high-ranking abusers has until now required many victims to risk potentially career-destroying retaliation. The struggle against sexual harassment has largely depended on the courage of individuals willing to expose themselves to the wrath of higher-ups.

The federal government, however, already possesses the most effective possible means for getting academics’ attention: the power to withhold funding. It has used this to great effect to protect human subjects and research animals. In a similar vein, the new NSF policy will “provide targeted, serious consequences for harassers,” said NSF Director France Córdova, as reported in Science. “We think this is a big deal.”

It is, but not big enough. The agency finances less than 14% of federally funded academic research, according to the National Science Board, so it can exert authority only over a small portion of academe. More than half of academe’s federal research funding comes from the Department of Health and Human Services, primarily the National Institutions of Health (NIH).

NIH also wants to abolish harassment, declared a statement by NIH Director Francis Collins in the same September week as the NSF announcement. “It is expected of awardee organizations to contact NIH if there has been a change in status of senior/key personnel,” states the agency’s “anti-sexual harassment” website, launched the same day as the statement.

As Benjamin Corb of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology objected in a statement, however, Collins’s statement did not “define how the NIH will respond to violations of sexual harassment policies at institutions” that receive NIH funding. The stated policy, Corb continued, “may perpetuate the underreporting of violations that lead to senior/key personnel changes and discourage institutions from addressing less severe forms of harassment that may precede more severe violations.”

In a follow-up statement, Collins blamed “[l]egal constraints that apply differently to NSF and NIH” for keeping NIH from immediately implementing a policy like the new one at NSF. “Ideally, all granting agencies of the U.S. government that support scientific research should adopt consistent approaches to the problem of sexual harassment,” he continued, but “a rulemaking process would be needed to determine if NIH can require the same responses from our awardee organizations” as NSF. Collins did not explain why that process cannot begin forthwith.

A role for Congress?

For years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s epoch-making 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision ordered the end of school segregation, officials and politicians in many Southern states cited seemingly endless bureaucratic, logistical, and other reasons why integration could not proceed. Only additional confrontations between federal and state authorities over the next decade, along with landmark congressional legislation, finally forced the end of de jure segregation. So, if the law currently puts the problem of sexual harassment beyond funding agencies’ ability to solve on their own, what is Congress waiting for?

In September, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and Representative Barbara Comstock (R-VA), chair of the committee’s Research and Technology Subcommittee, wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office requesting that the agency evaluate potential policies to prevent harassment, including improvements in reporting, restructuring mentoring and advising to reduce the fear of reprisal, and canceling grants. “No taxpayer dollars should be awarded to a researcher who engages in harassment and inappropriate behavior toward a colleague or a student under their charge,” Smith declared in a statement accompanying the letter. “We must have strong policies in place to protect women in the sciences from sexual harassment,” Comstock agreed in the same statement.

Does this mean we can expect a Little Rock moment—a uniform, government-wide policy with strong, predictable consequences that uses federal funding power to effectively sanction harassers—any time soon? Until it comes, it’s hard to see how sexual harassment in academic science will end.

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