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Photo of Dr. France A. Cordova

Dr. France A. Córdova
U.S. National Science Foundation


AAAS Fellows Forum
Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.

February 16, 2019

Photo: NSF/Stephen Voss

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.


Slide image: graphic of multiple human heads

Image credit: Shutterstock, designed by NSF

Good morning. [acknowledge VIPs]

First, I want to congratulate you on your election as AAAS Fellows. You've been recognized for your contributions to science, the scientific community, and society. I remember my own election in 2006 – the feeling of being honored, and the respect for the group I was joining. You're all becoming part of a 150-year tradition filled with names like Margaret Mead, Linus Pauling, Freeman Dyson and Grace Hopper. You're being welcomed into some illustrious company. You should feel proud.

Plus, you get pins.

But with every honor comes responsibility. Those recognized for leadership are expected to lead, to step into roles where they help shape and improve the science and engineering enterprise for future generations. By accepting these fellowships, you're identifying yourselves as people who can be called upon when the scientific community needs guidance, when we require people who will not shrink from the biggest challenges we face today, and in the future.

So, yes, those lovely pins may start to feel a bit heavy.

Paradoxically, big challenges can be easy to avoid. All you need to do is say that they're just part of the culture – that they're too big.

In science, we all know the sure-fire ways to win respect and praise: make discoveries, explore new research frontiers, publish new findings. Wading into big, culture-wide matters – like research integrity, implicit bias, broadening participation, responsible data usage, reproducibility and replicability and workplace behavior – takes you beyond what some will call "pure scientific inquiry."

It's a road with fewer guideposts. Maintaining the status quo carries little professional risk, but bucking it opens you to criticism.

That's why leadership is crucial. When facing a culture-wide, intractable problem, we are frequently given lists of why they can't be addressed, or the things we can't do. Or we're told that we're supposed to stay focused on doing our jobs the way they've always been done.

But leaders must recognize that without action on the big issues, the science and engineering enterprise would stagnate. Leaders must look for what they can do.

And I'm not just talking about the heads of federal agencies. You don't need "director" or "supervisor" in front of your name to lead. You need to look for leadership opportunities when they arise, when you have a moment to shift a conversation or take an action, and you need to seize it. You must demand accountability from those within your spheres of influence, and from yourselves.

Which brings us to one of the most significant developments out of NSF over the past year, a term and condition added to all our new awards aimed at stamping out harassment, including sexual harassment. Under this new term and condition, awardee organizations must notify NSF whenever they make any findings or determinations, or take administrative action against NSF-funded PIs or co-PIs accused of harassment or sexual assault.

Now, I want to make it clear that this new policy is NSF's next step in trying to combat harassment in the PI community. But it's not the final one. We will be watching and listening in the coming months and years to see how it can be improved, or what additional measures we can put in place.

That said, this was a bold act, among the first of its kind for U.S. research-funding agencies. It provides swift, targeted, serious consequences for harassers. It gives people tools to stop harassers without disturbing others' careers and lives.

And it seeks to hold institutions accountable for their employees' behavior while making them partners with NSF in addressing harassment. People sometimes forget this, but most NSF research grants go to institutions, not individuals.

Too often in science and engineering, powerful people have floated the argument that their standing in the community is worth the cost of their bad behavior. If you try to discipline them or report them, their implicit threat is that your institution could lose funding or prestige.

This policy overturns those arguments. Under NSF's new term and condition, if an institution wants to avoid running the risk of losing NSF support, it must report any action on harassment and assault to us.

At the same time, the policy seeks to limit side effects that would harm innocent researchers and students. When an institution responsibly reports to NSF, we will work to remove PIs or co-PIs who have offended while preserve funding for others – suspending support only when no other option exists. In this way, NSF is looking to encourage people to report harassment, not hide it for fear of damaging their own careers, or those of their colleagues.

How did NSF get to this point? How did we go from talking about what we could not do to taking action on what we could? The path we took was similar to this year's AAAS meeting theme of transcending boundaries and crossing borders, both real and conceptual.

Sexual harassment in science and engineering has for years been a topic of discussion among federal agencies, scientific organizations and research institutions. It predates my tenure at NSF and the current MeToo movement. And those discussions, inevitably, would turn to the topic of whether taking action would slow scientific progress, harming the scientific community.

I made the decision that no such boundary exists. There is no border that separates those affected by harassment and the rest of the science and engineering enterprise. The people harmed by harassment are serving the cause of scientific advancement. Harassment harms science. Period.

We all know that harassment is an outrage. But being outraged about a problem like this isn't enough. As a leader, you need to be able to translate that into achievable solutions. And once, you resolve to do that, you need to implement good leadership practices:

  • Recognize the problem. For something like sexual harassment, or any of the other big, culture-wide issues in science and engineering, this is essential. Often the landscape for action is unclear. Leaders need to learn about a problem to be able to see the options in front of them. When someone tells you "We can't do anything," this is what allows you to say, with confidence, "Yes we can."
  • Assemble a diverse team of experts to talk it through. So what we did at the National Science Foundation was assemble our legal thoughts, our policy (office policy) and grants; our office of diversity and inclusion and all of our senior leaders.
  • Provide guidance to that team, and push for real action. "We had a discussion" shouldn't be an acceptable outcome. Let your people know the values and principles that should be reflected in any solution.
  • Create the conditions for success. Outline what you want to see from your team. Incentivize ideas – even those that turn out to not be feasible – and cooperative problem-solving. Don't allow people to derail progress.

Understand your ability to effect change, and take all of the opportunities that come up – even if they have limits. I'm not going to stand before you and claim that NSF has solved sexual harassment in the science and engineering community. NSF's ability to affect change is limited to those institutions, projects and people who receive our funding.

But believe me, it really has started conversations among all the agencies. Just yesterday I was talking to Francis Collins in NIH about how we, as he and I are the co-chairs on the committee of science of the National Science and Technology Council, can bring this and other issues of the culture of research into our committee meetings and as a group of about 20 science agencies approach them together.

When facing a problem as broad as harassment, this is the point where it would be easy to say, "If we can't fix everything, we shouldn't take any action at all." Instead, NSF made the decision that we should do whatever we can to create safer working environments right now.

Whenever you make such a decision, there will be people who say you've done too little, or too much, or you've gone beyond your mandate. But that's not accountability in leadership. Accountability means making the decision to act.

To be clear, leadership like this is often not easy. Even when you reach a very high level at an institution, or within government, taking ownership of an issue, being the one who says "I'm going to be held responsible for this action, so we're doing it this way," is intimidating.

But without people who will do that at all leadership levels, we'd never see anything improve. Change is difficult for organizations. It doesn't happen without leaders who push for it, and make sure it takes effect.

My leadership with NSF's sexual harassment term and condition didn't end when we put the policy in place. One of my continuing challenges will be ensuring that we follow through on the promise of our new policy. NSF needs to demonstrate to institutions and the community that when we receive reports, we will respond with action.

I'm pleased to say that once you start seizing leadership opportunities, it gets easier. Surrounding yourself with good team members who can support you and add their vision to your own is an important step towards becoming more comfortable as a leader. I could not stand before you today and talk about our new harassment policy without the work of a dedicated group at NSF that includes representatives from our research, policy and legal teams.

If you're receiving this honor from AAAS, chances are that you've already taken part in addressing some of the big issues in science and engineering – the kind that cannot be solved with a new telescope or supercomputer. I'm here to congratulate you today -- but also to implore you to continue your work as leaders. Help this nation's research enterprise move forward.

Take part in these important discussions. Look for solutions. Never let an artificial barrier, or the fear of disturbing the community, stop you from working to do whatever you can to help your fellow scientists. Because here's the thing about a barrier: once you climb it, you get a clear view of what's beyond.

Congratulations again to the elected fellows of 2018.