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National Science Foundation cracks down on sexual harassment

National Science Foundation logo.

In response to recent reports of sexual harassment in science, the National Science Foundation announced last week it requires that all 2,000 NSF-funded institutions — including UNC-Chapel Hill — report researchers who have been disciplined for such behavior.

NSF is joining other scientific organizations in a move to prevent gender-based discrimination in science. This initiative contributes to a nationwide conversation regarding the prevalence of sexual harassment in Hollywood and higher education.

“NSF is committed to promoting safe, productive research and education environments for current and future scientists and engineers,” the organization said in a notice.

Another NSF order cited Title IX for the policy change. The order explained all Title IX-funded institutions must comply with its regulations on discrimination, which includes NSF grants and agreements.

Felicia Washington, vice chancellor for workforce strategy, equity and engagement at UNC, said in a statement the University is looking forward to working with NSF.

“We share the National Science Foundation’s commitment to assuring that all students, faculty and staff can pursue their scientific and research endeavors free from sexual harassment and sexual misconduct,” she said.

Katrina Morgan, a Ph.D. student in the department of mathematics at UNC-CH, said she thinks the NSF proposal is a good first step in responding to harassment.

“I’ve talked to women in other departments, and (harassment) happens, and it really hurts people,” Morgan said. “I’ve heard stories of people getting forced out of the department because of the drama.”

Morgan said disciplining perpetrators can be difficult if they are important to the research or a tenured professor, which is a problem she sees in the proposal.

“They’re only requiring that universities report cases that are closed, which means there has to have been an internal process beforehand,” she said.

In a lot of harassment situations, the internal process and discipline are not enough to sufficiently respond to the problem, she said, but it is a meaningful first step that the NSF is speaking out.

“We get all of our funding from the NSF, so them saying they care about this issue matters a lot,” she said.

To report misconduct, a student at UNC-CH has to go through either the Title IX Compliance Coordinator or the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office to file a report. This can be done either by phone, letter, email or online.

UNC-CH has not yet released how, if at all, its policies regarding reporting sexual harassment will change in response to the notice from the NSF. The changes are still in the proposal phase and will soon be open to community feedback.

The NSF proposal outlined three potential changes to research, including new award requirements, harassment-free research workplaces and enhanced web resources.

Organizations receiving grants will have to report findings of sexual harassment involving grant personnel. NSF will empowered to take unilateral action to discipline the harasser, which could involve revoking a grant or removing them from the research.

NSF-funded organizations must also define clear rules to establish a harassment-free workplace, including an accessible way of reporting harassment and timely investigations.

The NSF Office of Diversity and Inclusion will oversee the project and ensure organizations receiving funding are free of discrimination. The office created a website with information about reporting different kinds of harassment to make it easier for the research community to respond in the future.

“A community effort is essential to eliminate sexual and other harassment in science and to build scientific work spaces where people can learn, grow and thrive,” director France Córdova said in the notice.


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Anna Pogarcic

Anna Pogarcic is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. She is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying journalism and history major. 

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