Hoping for Federal Agency Change on Sexual Harassment

It is September of 2022. I recently wrote an email to the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) about NSF’s lack of policy around sexual harassment. “LACK OF POLICY?” you exclaim. “I thought NSF had the best policy to prevent sexual harassment!”

You wouldn’t be alone in thinking NSF was a magical agency that put the victims and survivors first, held harassers accountable, and stood by its stated dedication to ending sexual harassment in science. Back in 2016, NSF declared it may “terminate funding to any institution found to be in noncompliance with Title IX regulations and that does not voluntarily come into compliance.” In 2018, the Program Director (then Dr. Francis Córdova) was vocal about being “tired of learning that male scientists [supported] with public funds have sexually harassed [students], staff and colleagues.” News and social media were abuzz in 2018 when NSF implemented new guidelines requiring organizations to report sexual harassment findings. NSF itself proclaimed these new regulations as an “agency-wide effort to ensure the research and learning environments it supports are free from harassment”. It was a start – and a year later NSF had received 16 notifications of harassment findings or investigations. Yet – problems persist. In 2019, NSF itself received a letter of concern from members of congress regarding harassment occurring at NSF. In Aug 2022 (weeks ago!), the report on the U.S. Antarctic Program revealed “serious concerns” about harassment and the continued potential for harassment in the NSF funded program.

Despite longstanding recognition of the problem and ongoing concerns – and this is important – NSF has ZERO guidelines to limit sexual harassment by individuals funded by NSF.

“ZERO guidelines?” you might say. Yup – ZERO. The only guidelines NSF has are related to organizations because NSF mostly funds organizations. Organizations have to report findings of harassment, but NSF itself does not hold PIs nor coPIs responsible for sexual harassment as individuals nor does it impose any guidance on what ethical behavior around sexual harassment should look like. Rather, those organizations receiving funding are given the responsibility to implement sexual harassment policies, undertake investigations, and report outcomes. That doesn’t sound so bad EXCEPT: policies are completely different across institutions, only formal investigations need to be reported (if you don’t know, many instances of sexual harassment are resolved informally so as not to leave records), and NSF has no guidance to encourage organizations to enact best practice policies such as those described in the National Academies report on Sexual Harassment in Academia.

Here is my email exchange with NSF – make of it what you will. I do not blame NSF for not being at the forefront of combating sexual harassment. Certainly, it is always safest to make bold statement rather than to take bold action. As you can see below, NSF is aware of the 2022 CHIPS act and the inclusion of provisions to combat sexual harassment. Yet, NSF is waiting to take action. I am disappointed in the organization that has funded most of my research, including a conference on faculty and staff sexual harassment. I remain hopeful that we may one day see federal agencies implement victim-centered and forward thinking policies to combat sexual harassment in science.


I am writing with a serious concern about NSF processes related to sexual misconduct. I hope with your taking on leadership at NSF that the organization can reform its approaches to better address sexual misconduct perpetrated by PIs and Co-PIs.

I recently learned that NSF has hired a Program Officer who I repeatedly tried to report for having a sexual relationship with a student funded on an NSF grant co-led by this then-faculty (now your Program Officer). The behavior was particularly concerning because the behavior impacted both the team’s ability to complete their work and, in my hindsight, influenced which students this then-faculty praised for future opportunity. Neither of the then-faculty’s institution nor the student’s institution nor NSF had any policies in place prohibiting this behavior. Had the then-faculty been employed at my institution, they would have been in violation of our consensual relationship policy prohibiting people with power from having sexual relationships with people they oversee. And, with such a finding, this individual would very likely not have been given a position as a Program Officer.

In discussing this with your Program Complaints office in 2021, I asked “Does NSF prohibit “consensual” relationships between award personnel and students funded on awards? Award personnel are PIs and co-PIs, if that helps.” Their response was “NSF does not prohibit  “consensual” relationships between PIs or Co-PIs and students.  NSF does not have a consensual relationship code of conduct we impose or require institutions to adopt.

Given the above, I am urging you to revisit NSF’s guidance to PIs and Co-PIs about power-based relationships. It is disheartening to those of us who are survivors and advocates to see NSF relying solely on institutional processes to set standards for what does and does not constitute sexual misconduct. It is even more troubling to see Program Officers appointed because they slipped through the cracks of policies holding PIs accountable for their behavior. 

I would be happy to speak with you further about this issue and/or encourage you to reach out to the NASEM Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education for guidance (full disclosure – I am an advisory board member). Given the serious concerns raised by the recent review of the US Antarctic Program, now is perhaps the most opportune time for NSF to consider its expectations of all project PIs and Co-PIs relative to sexual misconduct.

LETTER OF REPLY RECEIVED FROM NSF Office of Equity and Civil Rights, Sept 19, 2022

Thank you for your message of September 1, 2022, regarding guidance on power-based relationships in the research space.  Dr. Panchanathan requested that I respond directly to you on his behalf.

As my office articulated previously, NSF does not have a policy or term & condition or a regulation in its Title IX regulations (45 CFR 618) regulating consensual relationships between individuals conducting work on NSF awards.  However, NSF awardee institutions may be required to report such situations to NSF if they violate organizational codes of conduct that would trigger the reporting requirements under NSF’s Harassment Notification Term & Condition. Individuals may also file formal Title IX complaints with NSF’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights (OECR) if they feel that the awardee organization violated Title IX with respect to allegations of sexual misconduct relating to the application of consensual relationship policies.  As for NSF program officers, whether federal employees or Intergovernmental Personnel Act detailees, NSF assesses these personnel for suitability and security, consistent with federal law and regulation.

More generally though, to your primary point about guidance, OECR is constantly seeking innovative ways to strengthen its policies, procedures, and guidance, and in that regard, we very much value recommendations such as yours for my office to consider.  In fact, we are entering what we hope will be a truly exciting period with respect to federal policy development on harassment.  Following the CHIPs and Science Act (P.L. 117-167), the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will be forming an interagency working group to develop, in consultation with outside stakeholders, a consistent set of policy guidelines for Federal research agencies addressing sex-based and sexual harassment involving award personnel.

In addition, the agency will be entering into an agreement with the National Academies to issue a report on the impact of sex-based and sexual harassment in institutions of higher education

on the career advancement of individuals in the STEM workforce, including “where to focus future efforts with respect to decreasing the prevalence of sex-based and sexual harassment in such

institutions, including specific recommendations.”  We look forward to this report and to engaging in the inter-agency working group.  To be sure, we intend to be active participants in this group and to bring forward ideas and concerns we have received from the science community. 

NSF is committed to transparency and evidence-based action in combatting harassment.

Again, thank you for reaching out to the National Science Foundation on this important issue.

REPLY SENT TO NSF Office of Equity and Civil Rights, Sept 19, 2022

Thank you for your response.

I am well aware that “As my office articulated previously, NSF does not have a policy or term & condition or a regulation in its Title IX regulations (45 CFR 618) regulating consensual relationships between individuals conducting work on NSF awards”. As I noted in my email, I am suggesting NSF change its policies. 

I am glad to hear NSF is willing to work with other federal agencies to establish a consistent set of policies around sexual harassment. I am still quite disappointed that the agency I truly feel is my funding home is not willing to step forward and be the action leader on these issues.


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