The movement to clamp down on sexual harassment in science is gathering momentum in the US. Two government funding agencies and the country’s most prominent scientific society have taken steps this month to tackle the problem.

The National Science foundation (NSF) – which funds science and engineering research at 3000 US universities and other organisations – released new rules for research grants on 21 September. Grantees found guilty of sexual misconduct will face a range of sanctions, including having their funding terminated.

The policy, which is slated to go into effect on 21 October, will require institutions to report harassment by a principal investigator (PI) or co-PI on its grant applications. These rules also compel grant winners to notify the NSF if individuals are placed on leave or face any administrative action related to harassment. In these cases, the agency says it will consult with the institution and determine what action is appropriate. Sanctions can include substituting or removing PIs or co-PIs, reducing award funding and suspending or terminating awards.

The NSF announcement came just days after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a statement making it clear that it does not tolerate sexual harassment from the researchers whose work it finances. The NIH’s director, Francis Collins, said the biomedical research agency doesn’t automatically terminate funding to all investigators accused or found guilty of sexual harassment at the institutions it funds because it’s ‘a complex issue’ and ‘NIH funding is awarded to institutions, not to individuals’.

Collins noted that institutions are required to notify the funder if one of their PIs on an NIH grant is removed or placed on administrative leave. The NIH then has the option to suspend or terminate the grant.

NIH comes up short

While the research community largely welcomed the NSF’s actions, many expressed reservations that the NIH’s approach didn’t go far enough and was somewhat toothless. ‘The NSF is moving towards a policy that if you are a proven offender, you can be removed from a grant and lose your funding – the NIH has not gone that far, and that’s a point of frustration,’ says Ben Corb, spokesperson for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. ‘They will hide behind the legalese involved by saying “We don’t fund an investigator, we fund an institution”, but there are mechanisms that allow such intervention in cases of scientific misconduct.’

Scott Barolo, director of the University of Michigan’s biomedical sciences graduate programme, echoes Corb. ‘As far as an opening statement that they intend to hold institutions responsible for an investigator’s sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, I don’t think we could ask for more from the NSF,’ he tells Chemistry World. ‘But the NIH appears to have no plans for taking action when an NIH grantee is found to have committed sexual harassment or sexual misconduct.’

Barolo says the NIH’s official line seems to be that they don’t have the authority to address misconduct. But he too points out that the agency can withdraw grant funding in cases of scientific misconduct involving plagiarism, falsification or fabrication of data – or poor lab animal care.

There is also concern that the NIH’s new anti-sexual harassment website urges people to report any sexual misconduct that occurs while working on one of its research grants, yet doesn’t appear to be set-up to handle such allegations. ‘I personally find it extremely irresponsible to encourage victims to step forward when you have no plans to protect those whistleblowers or to do anything about the offence in the first place,’ Barolo says.

Beyond federal agency actions to combat sexual harassment and misconduct, scientific organisations are also taking the initiative.

Scientific society acts too

The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) governing council voted on 15 September to enact a new policy that enables an elected AAAS Fellow’s lifetime honour to be revoked if they are proven to have committed scientific misconduct or ‘serious breaches of professional ethics’. ‘We need effective and responsive policies in academic departments and institutions, scientific societies and government agencies that define expectations of behaviour and provide clear reporting processes, as well as consequences for violation,’ said the AAAS’s president, Margaret Hamburg, who chairs the AAAS Council.

Differences aside, there is agreement that these actions by the NSF, NIH and AAAS represent a significant milestone. ‘This issue of sexual harassment in science has been coming to a head, there has been a crescendo point,’ Corb states. ‘The community at large – the individual scientists – have been raising their voices and calling for more action, and those voice are getting louder and stronger.’

Another inflection point occurred in June when the US National Academies published a landmark report that concluded that current policies to address sexual harassment in science, engineering and medicine have largely failed. The academies urged universities to go further to achieve real change.

‘This is an outgrowth of not just the #MeToo movement, but the cases in science that made the scientific community a little more aware of this problem,’ says Laura Greene, a physics professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who sits on the AAAS board of directors. ‘We mostly just ignored it, like many other fields.’

She says the new AAAS policy is just a first step since it doesn’t apply to prizes and awards. ‘It is a good beginning – many other scientific societies will think about it,’ adds Greene, past president of the American Physical Society. ‘Many other professional scientific societies will make similar commitments.’

Maria Dulay, a research scientist at Stanford University’s chemistry department who shared her story of sexual harassment at the American Chemical Society’s meeting earlier this year, says she is pleased to see the scientific community acknowledging the climate of sexual harassment. ‘As a woman who has lived nearly half of her life as a scientist, sexual and gender harassment has always been a part of my career landscape,’ she says. ‘I believe that there needs to be accountability from the harasser and the entities that employ and provide research funding for the harasser and his or her group.’