Hit Them Where It Hurts: A Plea for Funding Agencies to Hold Abusers Accountable

On June 12th, 2018, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) released a report examining sexual harassment and assault of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). They found that academic institutions have failed to protect trainees, especially women and underrepresented minorities against harassment. The current culture in academia perpetuates as a latent hostility towards women and minority groups, and without a major change, it will stunt the entire scientific enterprise.

Sexual harassment is commonplace in STEM. This includes gender harassment, defined by NASEM as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion or second-class status,” and is the most common form of sexual harassment. 58% of women at the staff/faculty level have experienced sexual harassment. To put this number into perspective, women in academia (particularly within STEM) experience sexual and gender-based harassment at a rate that is second only to the military. Women of color experience even higher rates of harassment as they typically face a combination of racial/ethnic and sexual harassment. People belonging to gender and sexual minority groups are also affected; in one study, 1 in 5 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender physicists faced harassment at work because of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. In a separate study looking at undergraduates who identify as LGBTQ, found that LGBTQ students are leaving science majors far more than straight-identifying students due to marginalization and harassment. These findings are incredibly discouraging given all efforts in place to recruit women and underrepresented minorities into STEM.

Diversity and inclusivity matter. Full stop. I am not alone in my opinion as Dr. Kenneth Gibbs Jr., scientist and policy expert, recently summarized in Scientific American. First, scientific progress results from having diverse perspectives. Homogenous groups of people tend to generate fewer ideas we can draw upon, resulting in fewer scientific breakthroughs. Second, a lack of diversity represents a forfeiture of talent. Scientific talent does not segregate across socially constructed lines – everyone is capable of becoming a scientist. No one is born knowing how to run a PCR or build a satellite. Scientific talent is cultivated by the hard work of individuals and their mentors and teachers. Lastly, having a homogenous scientific enterprise is simply not sustainable. As of 2012, most children born in the US are non-white and half of them are female. With the current culture in STEM that is hostile to women and minorities, we will not be able to build and sustain scientific workforce when ~75% of the potential talent is underrepresented.

A lack of diversity at the department-level greatly contributes to a toxic climate. If you look at faculty members in most STEM-related departments, they are mostly white and male. There is a high degree of underrepresentation of Black, Hispanic and female faculty. In the biological sciences, white faculty are overrepresented relative to the number of biology PhDs. This creates a high-risk environment for harassment that can have long-lasting impacts on our careers as trainees. Kabat-Farr & Cortina found that with an increase of underrepresentation of women, the odds of women facing harassment significantly increases. An overrepresentation of men in leadership positions combined with their lack of awareness of sexual harassment, and ignorance of the rarity of false reporting from women, results in a lack of prevention and response. Underrepresentation in the present drives underrepresentation in the future. As it stands, academia has created a toxic, positive-feedback loop that is selectively driving women and minority groups out of science.

We need to promote retention of women and minorities in STEM and that begins with developing clear policy addressing harassment. A study looking at women studying engineering showed that one-third leave the field for other careers, much of which is caused by sexual and gender-based harassment. In the NASEM study, which revealed rampant sexual harassment in STEM fields, found that only 37.5% of respondents remained at the academic institution where they experienced their most impactful harassment incident.

Recruitment efforts have shown the excitement and passion for science is there, but so are the systemic biases, lack of representation and policies that work against women and minorities in STEM. Currently, most trainees choose not to report harassment and those that do often experience retaliation both professionally and socially–being referred to as ‘problematic’ by their colleagues. This is especially damaging because peer and mentor impressions are the capital upon which scientific careers are built. Bad impressions often bleed into references and letters of recommendation as victims apply for funding, and postdoctoral or tenure-track positions. There are no Title IX policies that can fix a damaged reputation.  

Another problem is that the only current systemic efforts to correct workplace harassment are built upon compliance with local and federal laws to avoid liability. There are no evidence-based training programs in place to prevent harassment. As they stand, the vast majority of compliance-centric university sexual harassment training programs have not been shown to meaningfully reduce sexual harassment rates. During a recent National Academic convocation on sexual harassment, the authors of the NASEM sexual harassment report stated that although universities have been conducting widespread sexual harassment training in the U.S. for over 15 years, it has not reduced sexual harassment.

Universities need to reconsider how they are going to address harassment, which is contributing to the gender and racial gap in academia. It doesn’t start with policy-making and it certainly doesn’t end with yet another training program. Eliminating sexual harassment in STEM begins with an entire cultural shift and the NASEM has provided several recommendations that include: faculty members with social and professional privilege (ie, tenure) calling out harassment, universities holding perpetrators of harassment accountable, revamping the hiring and promotion process to consider racial/gender equity issues and thus increasing representation, providing access to health and legal support for victims, and developing clear policies for addressing harassment and retaliation.

Harassment is a stark reality for many people in STEM. Here are some headlines from just the past two months where trainees in STEM have experienced harassment, assault and/or retaliation by their universities for reporting:

November 2018: Dartmouth Professors Are Accused of Sexual Abuse by 7 Women in Lawsuit

November 2018: Women warned top University of Maryland, Baltimore officials about 'hostile work environment' months before lawsuit
November 2018: Purdue Students Allegedly Kicked Out For Reporting Sexual Assault
November 2018: An academic reported sexual harassment. Her university allegedly retaliated.
October 2018: UCSF agrees to $150K settlement over sexual harassment claim

October 2018: Thirty UCLA employees were found to have violated UC sexual violence and sexual harassment, or SVSH, policy in the past two years

October 2018: A Star Neuroscientist Allegedly Drugged And Sexually Assaulted A Grad Student At A Scientific Meeting

There is a reason universities are likely to hang on to abusive researchers – funding. Depending on the funding agency and type of award, there is a substantial amount of each grant that goes to the university for non-research related purposes and covers various operational expenses—commonly referred to as “overhead.” Because of this, funding agencies have tremendous leverage when it comes to curbing sexual harassment. How? After the NASEM report was published, the National Science Foundation (NSF) took the first steps to provide a safeguard for trainees. In September 2018, the NSF announced their new policy. NSF now requires academic institutions to notify NSF ofany findings/determinations of sexual harassment, other forms of harassment or sexual assault regarding an NSF funded PI or co-PI.” Institutions must also notify NSF if the PI or co-PI is placed on administrative leave, or if they imposed any administrative action on the PI or co-PI for violating codes of conduct and regulations relating to sexual harassment, harassment and/or sexual assault. Given that a PI/co-PI has violated their terms of conduct, the NSF will review a report provided from the institution, and consult with the institution to potentially take the following actions: 1) substitute a PI/co-PI; 2) reduce the award funding amount; 3) suspend or terminate funds.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is supposedly making efforts to reduce sexual harassment, but there is no clear policy in place. Unlike NSF, the NIH does not require universities to report findings of harassment. While the NIH Director, Francis Collins, expressed some concern about the NASEM report on sexual harassment saying it is “deeply disturbing,” the NIH has yet to make any substantial policy change that gives trainees a safeguard against sexual harassment.  When the NIH was asked whether they’d adopt sexual harassment policies similar to NSF, they responded, “The NIH grants are awarded to organizations, not to individual investigators.” This isn’t true, as we know NIH can suspend and/or terminate funds of individual investigators due to research misconduct. The issue is that the NIH does not have a mandatory reporting requirement from universities if a PI/co-PI is found guilty of harassment. Therefore, without substantive changes to this policy, harassers can and will continue to be shielded by their universities, receive NIH funding, and harm the careers of countless scientists.

The NIH’s lack of response and safeguarding policies has garnered criticism from the media and attention from Congress. The #MeTooSTEM movement has started a petition demanding the NIH create and enforce a set of policies that provide safety to trainees where NIH-funded researchers, who are found guilty of sexual misconduct after Title IX hearings, should no longer receive any NIH funds, which also include: training grants, travel funds, career awards, and NIH-sponsored talks. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT3) have begun to question NIH Director Francis Collins on this matter and are pushing for increased accountability.

How many scientific discoveries have we lost due to universities turning a blind eye to harassment? How many more scientists are we going to lose before universities and funding agencies like the NIH begin to take action? In order to break down systemic biases that hinder a diverse and inclusive environment, we first need to consider what does and does not work. Right now, the conventional approaches are not working, and we should not place the burden of fixing systemic problems of academia on the shoulders of those most adversely affected by it. Higher education is in dire need of a seed change in the cultural attitudes surrounding workplace harassment. Funding agencies can and must catalyze this change by placing sanctions on abusive PIs—giving universities an incentive to both hire and keep researchers who will abide by a code-of-conduct. These changes will not only benefit women, people of color, gender/sexual minorities, and other under-represented groups; they are an absolute imperative to protect the future of a robust and sustainable STEM enterprise.

Deanna ArsalaComment