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Sexual Misconduct Not An Obstacle For US-Funded Researchers

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Ethan Barton Managing Editor
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Sexual harassment violations on the nation’s college campuses don’t stop researchers there from getting federal research grants.

The federal government awards billions of tax dollars in research grants to colleges each year, but leaves it up to the school to handle personnel who commit sexual misconduct. That means federal agencies could unknowingly dole out grants to sex predators.

But even when agencies are aware of sexual harassment, they still may not cut funding. Sexual misconduct, which is considered a form of sex discrimination, is prohibited under Title IX at any federally-funded educational program.

Molecular biologist Jason Lieb, for example, left the University of Chicago after an investigation revealed he “made unwelcome sexual advances” to students, including one who was incapacitated from alcohol, The New York Times recently reported.

That was after Lieb received $1.2 million from the National Institutes of Health, a Nature.com article reported.

Lieb’s case isn’t unique.

California Institute of Technology astrophysicist Christian Ott received $3.2 million from the National Science Foundation and NASA awarded roughly $1 million to University of California, Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, Nature.com reported. Both recently left their respective colleges following sexual harassment violations.

Yet, none of the agencies – NIH, NASA, and NSF – cut funding to those institutions. Space agency and NSF officials told the Daily Caller News Foundation they’ve never banned grants to any college or researcher following sexual misconduct, but didn’t say why. NIH did not respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment.

Research misconduct on NSF-funded projects has skyrocketed in recent years, but the agency won’t say how many times it has caught issues like plagiarism or falsified data in grant proposals and results.

It’s impossible to tally the number of sexual misconduct violations at colleges nationwide, since institutions aren’t required to report such cases to the federal government, according to Alexandra Tracy-Ramirez, a lawyer and former Title IX investigator.

The Department of Education will only investigate Title IX infractions after a complaint is filed with the agency’s Office of Civil Rights, which may then ask for a school’s history of such misconduct. The Education Department did not return requests for comment.

The threat of losing funding for Title IX violations “has to have an impact on people’s willingness to report to the OCR or federal funding agencies because institutions just cant afford to lose money,” Tracy-Ramirez told TheDCNF. She added, however, that the office has yet to revoke financial aid from schools, since it would “cripple” an institution.

“The hope was that OCR would never know what’s going on at our institution,” Tracy-Ramirez, who investigated more than 100 Title IX violations while at the University of Arizona, said.  “Most institutions do not view OCR as a partner. They’re the auditors.”

But financial aid isn’t the only funding government gives schools.

Numerous agencies supply colleges with research grants. The NSF, for example, annually awards around $7 billion to schools.

“NSF has not yet terminated funding due to Title IX violations, as NSF follows Title IX regulations and first seeks voluntary compliance before taking steps to terminate funds,” NSF spokeswoman Sarah Bates told TheDCNF. “NSF works closely with federal partners and grantee institutions in investigation of Title IX violations and allegations of misconduct. Each institution of higher education that receives federal dollars much [sic] comply with Title IX.”

But agencies are also typically unaware of sexual misconduct.

“The federal funding agencies are not responsible for enforcing Title IX,” Association for Women in Science Director of Research and Analysis Heather Metcalf told TheDCNF. “There’s no mechanism in place for the federal funding agencies to get the information about violations of Title IX or individuals who are violating Title IX.”

Consequently, women could see male researchers who have committed sexual misconduct rewarded with federal grant funds, rather than punished for bad behavior, according to Metcalf.

“It could make women feel as if nothing is going to be done about” sexual misconduct, she told TheDCNF. “The thought of coming forward against a key figure in your field and the potential backlash, especially when you see this person is being highly rewarded nationally … can create an environment where non-reporting occurs.”

Metcalf and Tracy-Ramirez agreed that agencies could require researchers to report Title IX violations when applying for grants. Instead, the government learns about such infractions through the media, Metcalf said.

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