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Putting the Money Where Their Mouths Are

US science funding agencies have been talking about levying harsh punishments against researchers who sexually harass their colleagues, but so far, they haven't actually taken action, says Nature News' Alexandra Witze.

Take the cases of University of Chicago in Illinois molecular biologist Jason Lieb, California Institute of Technology theoretical astrophysicist Christian Ott, or astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, formerly of the University of California, Berkeley, Witze says. They all brought millions in government research dollars to their universities, but the institutions have yet to decide what to do with the money.

Lieb, for example, is PI or co-PI on more than $1.2 million in NIH grants, and Ott has some involvment in more than $3.2 million in NSF funds. Those grants are under review, but the money is still being used, Witze says.

What is clear, according to research ethicists, is that the agencies need to improve their responses to this kind of behavior.

To start, according to Witze, the academic system needs to start complying with Title IX, which forbids sex discrimination in any educational program that receives government money. "To comply with Title IX, institutions must have a representative who investigates and resolves allegations of sex discrimination," Witze writes. "The inquiries into Lieb, Ott and Marcy all went through the Title IX offices at their respective universities."

But a Title IX investigation is only the first step. Universities need to decide whether to discipline the harasser, and funding agencies must decide whether to open their own investigations and levy their own penalties. "NASA and the NSF have both put out statements recently saying that they do not tolerate sexual harassment by grantees; the NSF even threatened to pull funds entirely from institutions that do not comply with Title IX," Witze writes.

The problem, however, is that the NSF has ever banned a grantee or institution for violating Title IX. And the process to do that would be very complicated.

"In general, funding awards are made to institutions, not the person who is the principal investigator for the work," Witze writes. "Even if a PI has been found to violate institutional policies, his or her grant money will continue to flow to support graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and other collaborators on an affected project."

US agencies could learn from countries like Canada and Australia, which require federally funded scientists to meet a minimum ethical standard that specifically describes institutional roles, Witze says.