One year after a landmark National Academies study illuminated the pervasiveness of sexual and gender harassment in the sciences, the House Science Committee approved a bill that adopts several of the report’s recommendations.
The House Science Committee unanimously approved the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act last week, just over a year after the National Academies released a landmark report on the subject. The legislation responds to several of the report’s recommendations concerning the need for uniform harassment reporting policies across federal science agencies and for supporting research on harassment mitigation strategies. With nearly 100 cosponsors, including seven Republicans, it is unlikely to face serious obstacles on the House floor. (AIP and several of its Member Societies have endorsed the bill.)
The legislation’s prospects in the Senate are less clear. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has introduced a companion bill that currently does not have any Republican cosponsors and is in the hands of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), which is chaired by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). In connection with an ongoing effort to update the Higher Education Act, that committee is currently occupied with a broader debate over what the federal government should do to reform how sexual assault and harassment are handled on college and university campuses.
Bill would extend NSF actions and research
A key provision of the House bill would require federal science agencies to implement policies requiring grantee institutions to report back findings of sexual harassment against grant personnel as well as “administrative actions” taken related to ongoing sexual harassment investigations. The National Science Foundation already implemented such a policy in September.
At a hearing on the bill earlier this month, Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) praised NSF’s initiative and described forces discouraging academic institutions from taking effective action, saying,
The historical tolerance of sexual harassment in the sciences is deeply rooted in institutional culture. The incentive structure within academia encourages a lack of transparency and accountability. It does less harm to an institution’s reputation to allow a bad actor to quietly resign and often move on to another institution, than to do a full investigation that may result in a potentially embarrassing public finding.
Calling for Congress to address the problem, she remarked, “As the Science Committee, our responsibility lies in helping to ensure that federal science agencies are doing their part.”
Echoing the sentiment, Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) declared, “No taxpayer dollars should be awarded to a researcher who engages in harassment and inappropriate behavior toward a colleague or a student.”
Aside from requiring reporting to funding agencies, the bill contains a variety of other provisions targeting both sexual and gender harassment, defining the latter as encompassing “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey insulting, hostile, and degrading attitudes about members of one gender.” The National Academies report emphasized that such behaviors represent the most common forms of sexual harassment.
For instance, the bill directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to consider developing guidelines that “require or incentivize” grantee institutions to conduct periodic organizational climate surveys and work to diffuse the “hierarchical and dependent relationships between grant personnel and their trainees,” among other actions.
The bill further requires NSF to support research on factors behind and consequences of harassment in the STEM workforce as well as on interventions to reduce the incidence and harms of harassment. It also directs NSF to commission an update to a 2009 National Academies report on responsible research conduct and a new study on how sexual harassment in higher education influences career advancement in the STEM workforce.
At its meeting to approve the bill, the committee significantly revised it to incorporate feedback from stakeholders. Johnson offered a substitute amendment she said would address “key privacy and due process concerns of the university community” by clarifying privacy protections for victims and accused harassers and adding definitions for certain key terms. The committee also approved an amendment offered by Lucas that restricts the types of administrative actions against grantees that must be reported to those that affect the “ability of grant personnel or their trainees to carry out the activities of the grant.”
A final successful amendment, submitted by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX), included language directing OSTP to consider developing guidelines on ways of supporting the “reintegration” of harassment victims into the scientific workforce.
Committee considers steps beyond bill
Beyond its current legislation, the committee is also deliberating what further steps should be taken to combat sexual and gender harassment.
At the June 12 hearing, Wellesley College President Paula Johnson, who co-chaired the National Academies sexual harassment study, was among the witnesses. Conveying recommendations from the report, she said the results of anonymous workplace climate surveys should be shared and used to better understand the culture in scientific environments. She also said Congress should consider legislation that bans mandatory arbitration clauses, permits victims to sue their harassers directly, and prohibits confidentiality agreements that shield the identity of harassers.
The hearing also examined ways institutions can go beyond simple compliance with Title IX, the law that bans gender-based discrimination in education programs. Referencing the Academies report recommendation that the law be treated “as a floor, not a ceiling,” Johnson said many institutions currently take a “legalistic” approach to addressing sexual harassment that “really looks to only decrease liability.” She advocated for universities to instead focus on “increasing the culture of diversity, inclusion, and respect; changing the power dynamic in the mentor–mentee relationship; supporting targets of harassment; and really improving accountability and transparency.”
Witnesses also expressed concerns with the Trump administration’s proposed changes to Title IX, which have a direct bearing on the Senate HELP Committee’s work on Higher Education Act legislation. Under the administration’s proposal, the federal definition of sexual harassment would be narrowed and the law’s compliance requirements would be altered. Many universities and scientific societies have opposed the changes, including a number of AIP Member Societies.
Agency-level efforts at different stages
Coincident with the hearing, the Government Accountability Office released preliminary findings from its ongoing study on sexual harassment policies at five federal science agencies and the prevalence of harassment complaints by their university grantees. The report, which the committee requested, is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
GAO found that NSF received 14 formal complaints of Title IX violations against universities over the last four years, while NASA received three, the Department of Energy two, and the National Institute of Health's parent agency one. The report notes that NSF has seen an increase in the number of reports after adopting its new policy and that NASA plans to implement a similar policy.
While agencies conduct periodic Title IX compliance reviews, GAO finds they “rarely learn about instances of sexual harassment from voluntary reporting from universities or other federal agencies and instead must rely on other sources, such as news reports.”
NIH is also considering policy changes to combat sexual harassment. The agency’s working group on the subject released its initial recommendations this month, calling for NIH to require institutions to report all harassment investigations, not just the outcomes, and to treat sexual misconduct as severely as research misconduct, among other actions. The report was informed by a public listening session for victims of harassment and other outreach efforts. NIH has also commissioned a climate survey of its own workforce, which found that 22% of respondents experienced some form of harassment in the past year.
At a meeting held to review the studies this month, NIH Director Francis Collins remarked, “We're concerned that federal institutions, including the NIH, have been part of the problem. And we really want to be part of the solution. We are sorry for the way in which we have not responded effectively in the past to this situation, and we're determined to do much better.”