National Science Foundation warns sexual harassment will jeopardize researchers’ grants

Students walked across the campus of Boston University.
Students walked across the campus of Boston University.

The National Science Foundation, one of the primary funders of research on university campuses, is tightening its restrictions on grants after a flurry of recent reports of sexual harassment by scientists the government agency has backed.

Institutions including Boston University and Dartmouth College have recently launched investigations of professors who have received research funding and who have been accused of harassment and sexual misconduct.

The foundation, which finances billions of dollars of research annually paid for by taxpayers, will now require colleges and universities to report any findings of sexual or any other type of harassment by a grant’s principal scientists or personnel, it announced on Thursday.


Universities will also have to notify the foundation if they place scientists on administrative leave pending an investigation of harassment. And researchers and institutions will be at risk of losing their funding due to bad behavior.

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Scientists who create a hostile and unsafe environment “upset the whole ecosystem” said France A. Córdova, director of the NSF, adding that such actions can discourage younger researchers from joining the field and harm careers. “Clearly, we’re doing this to show that the NSF doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment.”

The NSF’s actions should be a warning to universities and scientists, who rely on federal funding to build careers and pay for the overhead costs of research, said Kathryn Clancy, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois who has studied sexual and racial discrimination in the sciences.

“Wow, this is strong, unambiguous language,” Clancy said. “I don’t like the idea of taxpayer money going to people who don’t treat other people with respect. I applaud any effort to improve the climate.”

The NSF issued a public notice of its new rules Thursday and will allow public comment before final adoption, but officials said they anticipate putting the requirements into place within weeks.


In the past, universities that receive NSF funds have simply had to certify they are abiding by federal laws about sex discrimination, called Title IX, Córdova said.

The NSF sometimes receives and investigates complaints against scientists but typically it would find out about a college’s investigation or disciplinary action from news reports, she said.

“That’s a pretty poor way to find out about something,” Córdova said.

Recent cases and efforts by congressional leaders to limit federal funding of scientists who behave inappropriately spurred the NSF to act.

In November, Boston University announced that during a 13-month investigation it found evidence that a well-known geologist had sexually harassed a graduate student almost two decades earlier, while on an expedition in Antarctica. BU planned to fire him.


The professor, David Marchant, has denied any wrongdoing and has said he would appeal the findings. Marchant has received more than $1.6 million from the NSF as a principal investigator focused on climate research in Antarctica.

Several women alleged that on some trips to Antarctica in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Marchant hurled rocks at them, shoved them, used sexual slurs, and berated them about their bodies and their work. The accusations were first were detailed in a story in the magazine Science last fall.

This month, the NSF amended a grant for about $250,000, removing Marchant as principal investigator on the project, one of the sanctions available to the agency.

The NSF has also provided thousands of dollars of research funding to at least one of the three psychology professors at Dartmouth College who are at the center of a criminal probe over sexual misconduct and a university investigation into their behavior.

The professors, Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen, and Bill Kelley, have been on paid leave pending the results of the investigation.

In an anonymous letter to the Dartmouth school newspaper in November, 15 undergraduates, graduates, and post-doctoral candidates alleged the professors “created a hostile academic environment in which sexual harassment is normalized.”

Heatherton, who has received more than $4 million in NSF grants, has denied the allegations of misconduct. Whalen and Kelley have not responded to multiple requests for comment.

The NSF declined to comment on specific sanctions it has imposed when there have been official findings of misconduct.

In the past two years, however, the NSF has decreased funding to scientists due to disciplinary action following sexual misconduct.

Awards have not been terminated, because the agency didn’t want to harm students and post-doctoral candidates who were doing research and were innocent parties, NSF officials said.

But Córdova said she expects universities to get the message that the NSF needs to be informed and involved when researchers are found to have misbehaved.

“We aren’t waiting for it to hit the news for us to get involved,” she said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.