NSF, NASA Issue Policy Statements against Harassment

In the wake of reports of alleged sexual harassment by prominent researchers, two funding agencies issued statements underscoring their commitment to safe, inclusive research environments. In a January 15, 2016 letter, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden encouraged grantee institutions to reevaluate harassment policies, noting their legal obligation to ensure discrimination-free environments. In a January 25, 2016 press release, the National Science Foundation stressed its “strong commitment to preventing harassment and to eradicate gender-based discrimination in science.”

Concern about the incidence of sexual harassment in the academic research community attracted public notice last fall when it became known that an exoplanetary astronomer had violated of University of California, Berkeley’s sexual harassment policies. This was followed by reports that the California Institute of Technology had suspended a professor of astrophysics for gender-based harassment.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) drew further attention to this problem in a January 12 speech on the House floor. Speier disclosed details of another harassment report that had been leaked to her office. This report, from a 2004 investigation by the University of Arizona in Tucson, documented the findings of an investigation into the conduct of a professor who has since moved to University of Wyoming. Speier also announced plans to strengthen anti-discrimination laws by ensuring that when individuals found guilty of harassment changes institutions, their records follow them.

Three days after Rep. Speier’s speech, Administrator Bolden issued his letter to NASA grantee institutions. NASA’s position is that “science is for everyone and any behavior that demeans or discourages people from fully participating is unacceptable,” Bolden wrote. Though most of the public discussion had been specific to sexual harassment, Bolden made clear that NASA condemned harassment of any type, listing the legal requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, “which prohibits race, color, and national origin discrimination and harassment among federal funding recipients” alongside the more often-cited Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which bars sexual harassment by federal funding recipients. Deputy Administrator Dava Newman reiterated Bolden’s message on her official blog the same day, adding “it matters to us intrinsically that we…make NASA an inclusive, cooperative, and safe working environment.”

January 20, 2016, Nature published a female scientist’s account of her experience being harassed. She said that both the harassment and the process of filing an official complaint hurt her career. Nature paired this first-person account with an editorial titled “Harassment victims deserve better.”

January 25, 2016, the NSF released a press statement reaffirming its anti-discrimination policy, stating that it “holds responsible the 2,000 U.S. colleges, universities and other institutions that receive NSF funding” for creating discrimination-free work environments. The NSF statement also outlined possible consequences should institutions not fulfill their responsibilities:

For any NSF-funded entity that fails to adhere to Title IX, NSF will work with the Departments of Justice and Education to ensure compliance with nondiscrimination laws. NSF may terminate funding to any institution found to be in noncompliance with Title IX regulations and that does not voluntarily come into compliance.