Washington Update

House Hearing Covers Strategies to Combat Sexual Harassment in Science

By: Edna Chiang
Thursday, June 20, 2019

On June 12, the full House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology met to discuss specific strategies in a session titled “Combatting Sexual Harassment in Science.”

Opening statements from Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) expressed strong, bipartisan support. Earlier this year, they co-sponsored bill H.R. 36, the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act. Both representatives sought witnesses’ recommendations for ways to improve the bill.

The witness panel consisted of a government employee and three academics. John Neumann, Managing Director of Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, presented preliminary results from a study the Committee requested to evaluate federal science agencies’ efforts in preventing sexual harassment.

The study examined the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Areas of interest included the availability of staff and budget to address sexual harassment complaints; efforts to establish and communicate sexual harassment prevention policies and procedures to university grantees; and collaboration among agencies.

Mr. Neumann said that all five agencies have adequate resources to respond to sexual harassment reports. But moving forward this may change for some agencies, such as NSF, that are receiving increasing numbers of sexual harassment complaints.

The agencies have established and communicated sexual harassment prevention policies to university grant recipients, but to varying degrees. Mr. Neumann reported that NASA, NIH, and NSF have detailed policies and provide multiple forms of grantee guidance. Chairwoman Johnson and Ranking Member Lucas commended NSF for requiring grantees to report instances of sexual harassment. NASA plans to implement similar requirements by year’s end.

Not all agencies have such detailed procedures. Mr. Neumann said that DOE and USDA have only issued general statements and lack policies that specifically address grantees. Chairwoman Johnson also expressed concern that none of the agencies have evaluated the effectiveness of their policies.

Mr. Neumann reported that agencies are collaborating to share resources and information to help prevent sexual harassment at recipient institutions. The academic witnesses recommended that uniform sexual harassment policies and procedures be developed because many investigators are funded by multiple agencies. They said a united government sexual harassment policy would greatly help universities combat this issue.

Results from a National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) study titled, “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine” were also discussed. Paula Johnson, PhD, President of Wellesley College and Co-Chair of the NASEM report, summarized the study’s findings and recommendations. To read FASEB’s summary of the report, click here.

Two witnesses described their universities’ efforts to address sexual harassment, including participation in an American Association for the Advancement of Science program called STEM Equality Achievement Change (SEA Change). Jean Morrison, PhD, University Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Boston University, and Philip H. Kass, PhD, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of California, Davis (UC-Davis), said their institutions received the inaugural SEA Change bronze award.

As part of UC Davis’ participation in SEA Change, the university implemented a reference check pilot program to ensure that faculty adhere to the Code of Conduct and create safe work environments. Dr. Kass said that final candidates for tenure-track positions are required to “sign a disclosure agreement authorizing their previous institutions to disclose to [UC-Davis] any substantiated charges of sexual harassment and discipline.” He believes the program deters offenders from applying, and helps prevent them from relocating and potentially becoming serial offenders.

The Committee was particularly interested in the inspiration behind SEA Change: a United Kingdom diversity and inclusion program called Athena SWAN. This program helps universities increase gender diversity and provides levels of certification to recognize their commitment to this mission. Dr. Kass said Athena SWAN has become so successful that some government grants require a certain level of university certification for eligibility. The program’s mission has spread globally, inspiring not only SEA Change in the U.S. but similar programs in Australia and Canada.

“Our values and our intentions are in the right place, but it’s our job to match those values with concrete actions,” Dr. Morrison said.

A video of the hearing and Chairwoman Johnson’s opening statement can be found here.