Response to NSF new policy in reporting harassment

published May 3, 2018 12:00am

3 May 2018

Suzanne H. Plimpton
Reports Clearance Officer
Office of the General Counsel
National Science Foundation
2415 Eisenhower Avenue
Alexandria, VA 22314,

Response to NSF Important Notice No. 144, dated February 8, 2018

Reporting Requirement Regarding Findings of Sexual Harassment, other Forms of Harassment, or Sexual Assault

We are heartened that the National Science Foundation is taking an important step in ensuring safe, productive research and educational environments free from harassment. Harassment endangers people's lives, livelihoods, education, careers, and our scientific enterprise (1). with serious consequences on mental and physical health, scientific productivity and career advancement. It is essential that funding agencies use their influence to guarantee ethical practices in the conduct of research and in the training of current and future scientists and engineers. It is critical that the policy be upheld regardless of where award activities occur, whether at the awardee institution, online, or conducted outside the organization (e.g., at field sites or other research facilities, during conferences and workshops or meetings).

Reducing the prevalence of harassment and other hostile behaviors requires a continuous effort and it cannot be solved alone by the creation of one policy. It is our hope that this new policy include mechanisms for adaptation; that policies and procedures be revisited periodically and be modified in response to public feedback and that data be collected on their effectiveness.

Below we pose a number of questions for further clarification regarding the proposed policy and suggestions for additional measures that NSF should consider to ensure that everyone whose work is supported by an NSF award behaves in a responsible and accountable manner.

The policy put forth requires all universities to inform NSF of pending investigations and the outcome of those investigations for all awardee PIs, co-PIs or personnel identified on an NSF award or supported by an NSF award. We ask NSF to expand this to explicitly include all people directly contributing to the award activities, including subawardees, subcontracts, students and trainees. For example, often staff may contribute to research activities directly and may be coauthors on publications but not receive salary support from an award, and they should be covered by this policy.

We also recommend this policy be expanded to 1) include all current NSF awardees, not just all new NSF awards and funding amendments to existing awards made on or after the effective date and 2) also consider findings and determinations prior to the effective date of the terms and conditions. We are not proposing that the same actions necessarily be taken for past behaviors than for current violations, but this is especially important because many harassers are serial harassers who may have been endangering trainees and other scientists for decades at multiple institutions (2)(3). This expansion of scope will send a clear message that NSF will not tolerate harassing behavior anytime.

This policy should also clearly state an anti-retaliation policy to prevent backlash from reporting, which is a real threat and deterrent to individuals reporting harassment to their institutions in the first place. This should include mechanisms for the confidential submission to NSF of names of potential reviewers who should be disqualified from reviewing individual proposals and making funding decisions because of harassment and other misconduct.

Given that much of the harassment and hostile conduct that this policy is trying to deter result from power imbalances in our research and educational institutions, and as a safeguard for protecting trainees whose ability to conduct their research as well as their livelihoods may be threatened by the policy proposed, we request that NSF seriously consider increasing the number of independent graduate and postdoctoral or trainee grant opportunities and number of awardees as well as develop new funding mechanisms that would disassociate trainee support from the control of potentially abusive PIs. We would welcome a thoughtful discussion in the scientific community about different ways to achieve this.

The proposed policy also needs clarification regarding the following:

Reporting: What happens if an incident is reported and the institution decides not to investigate the allegation despite the incident endangering individuals? Recent publicized scandals at U.S. universities show that institutions often fail to adequately address real allegations, with disastrous consequences.

What is the difference between a pending investigation versus a finalized one?

What if someone reports behavior to a scientific society rather than to their university? If the incident occurs at a conference, it is more likely that it will be reported to the society, not the institution. Many scientific societies have recently revised their codes of ethics to address bullying, harassment and discrimination and have their own independent investigative processes (4) that do not rely on the institution of employment.

What information is the university compelled to turn over to NSF (e.g., the outcome of the investigation and/or evidence used in the decision)? These clarifications of the necessary reporting process are critical, especially given that most incidents of harassment and bullying go unreported in large part due to lack of clarity about university procedures and guidelines, especially when incidents occur off campus in field environments (5)(6). In another recently publicized case, an independent investigation concluded that a faculty member had behaved in hostile ways towards others but that these did not violate the written code of conduct of that specific institution (but would have violated the code of conduct of many other institutions).

How does the proposed policy deal with non-disclosure agreements?

Investigations and processes: To address the problems outlined above, NSF should create a process for investigating allegations reported to NSF. Relatedly, NSF should outline potential sanctions for violations of this policy as well as the process for assigning sanctions to particular cases and an appeals process.

Protections for students and postdoctoral scholars: If a PI or other member of the awardee team is found responsible and removed from the grant it is imperative that there are protections for those who are working for that PI. Specifically, funding for fellowship, tuition, and stipends/salaries for students and postdoctoral scholars needs to be protected so that the bullying and/or harassing behavior cannot continue via financial coercion. This is critical so that the offender also cannot use the funding mechanism as a means of retaliation. Without these protections, bullying and harassment can go on for years.

Furthermore, we propose the requirement of a Safety Management Plan (SMP) to proposal submissions to all NSF programs. The SMP would be inclusive of all applicable laboratory (chemical, radiation, re: exposure) and field (equipment, weather, hazardous conditions, etc.) safety as well scientific misconduct (bullying, harassment, data integrity) processes and procedures. This would include documenting university and/or field station reporting guidelines to prevent and respond to harassment and bullying as well as a mentoring plan for how the PIs will communicate this information to the trainees and staff on the project.

We also propose that NSF require ethics training of all PIs, co-PIs and senior personnel, not just graduate students and postdocs, and that all ethics training include adequate discussion of power relations among advisors and trainees and implicit bias and anti-harassment training. Specific trainings should be outlined in the SMP plans and include applicable bystander intervention or other anti-harassment trainings.

The reporting requirement policy should be clearly visible during the proposal preparation and submission process. PIs should be asked to check a box that they have read and understand NSF's policy on harassment and misconduct as well as this reporting policy before a proposal is allowed to be submitted and then again before an award is made.

Finally, we hope that NSF develop policies that prevent institutions from not conducting investigations of harassment and other abuses and misconduct so that they do not have to report to NSF. Addressing protections for trainees who are funded via NSF awards or whose research depends on access to resources supported by NSF is also fundamental to prevent the unintended and adverse consequence of suppressing reports of harassment because people are afraid they will lose their support or ability to complete their degrees.

Thank you for your consideration.

On behalf of the ADVANCEGeo Partnership Team

Erika Marin-Spiotta, Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Rebecca Barnes, Assistant Professor, Colorado College
Christine Fabian Bell, Evaluator, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Haley Burkhardt, Graduate Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Meredith Hastings, Associate Professor, Brown University
Megan Murphy, Undergraduate Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Sunita M. Nandihalli, Graduate Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Blair Schneider, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Kansas
Lauren Zeeck, Graduate Student, Colorado School of Mines

References cited:
  1. Marín-Spiotta, E., B. Schneider, and M. A. Holmes. 2016. Steps to building a no-tolerance culture for sexual harassment, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO044859. Published on 28 January 2016.
  2. Cantalupo, N.C. and W.C. Kidder. 2018. A Systematic Look at a Serial Problem:Sexual Harassment of Students by University Faculty. Utah Law Review Forthcoming
  3. Not a Fluke: That case of academic sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual misconduct, stalking, violations of dating policies, violations of campus pornography policies, and similar violation is not an isolated incident by Julie Libarkin- Geocognition Research Laboratory Michigan State University
  4. Gundersen, L., B. Williams and M. McPhaden AGU Revises Its Integrity and Ethics Policy Published 18 September 2017.
  5. Clancy K.B.H., R.G. Nelson, J.N. Rutherford and K. Hinde. 2014. Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PLOS ONE 9(7): e102172.
  6. Nelson, R.G., J.N. Rutherford, K. Hinde, and K.B. Clancy. 2017. Signaling Safety: Characterizing Fieldwork Experiences and Their Implications for Career Trajectories. American Anthropologist, 119: 710-722. doi:10.1111/aman.12929