The U.S. House Committee on Science, Space & Technology has sent a list of recommendations to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), asking that federal research grants be taken away from researchers who engage in sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior.
The congressional committee, chaired by Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, is currently overseeing allegations of sexual misconduct within the scientific community, and is exploring ways in which the GAO can prevent this from happening. Back in January, the committee asked the GAO to conduct a comprehensive study into the matter, a request that resulted in several independent reports and findings highlighting a disturbing number of cases involving inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment within the scientific and academic communities.
Indeed, the statistics are sobering; sexual misconduct is rampant in STEM fields. A recent survey by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) revealed that more than 50 percent of women faculty and staff, and between 20 to 50 percent of women students, encounter or experience sexually harassing conduct in academia. And in February of this year, witnesses testifying at a hearing of the House research and technology subcommittee said women are leaving STEM fields owing to this unprofessional and abhorrent behavior.
In response to these revelations, the House committee delivered another letter to Gene Dodaro, comptroller general of the GAO—this one containing four broad recommendations, as summarized in its press release:
- Consistent and effective training across the concerned communities to reduce sexual misconduct.
- Clear, accessible structures to make reporting sexual misconduct easier.
- Reconsidering the academic model of having a single advisor responsible for overseeing a student or trainee. This dynamic, and the resulting fear of reprisal, discourages reporting of sexual misconduct.
- Implementing and enforcing effective consequences, including the cancelation of federal grants.
This latest letter coincides with new terms and conditions sketched out by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to “ensure the research and learning environments it supports are free from harassment.” Full details of these new rules will be announced tomorrow, but an NSF press release issued on Wednesday stated that beneficiaries of FDA research grants must notify the agency of “findings or determinations” in cases in which an NSF-funded principal investigator or co-principal investigator has committed harassment, including sexual misconduct or assault, or if NSF-funded investigators were placed on leave for these reasons.
“NSF will consult with the awardee organization, and determine what action is necessary under NSF’s authority,” stated the agency in its release. “NSF actions may include substituting or removing principal investigators or co-principal investigators, reducing award funding, and—where neither of those options is available or adequate—suspending or terminating awards.
Research and Technology Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Comstock, a co-author of the latest House committee letter, said strong policies are needed to protect women in the sciences from sexual harassment to keep them in the STEM fields.
“And the Government Accountability Office must help Congress and the Federal government identify how to enforce these policies and weed out the predators that have eluded the system,” she added. “STEM careers often are top paying jobs, and they are vital positions in keeping the United States competitive in the 21st [century] economy. We are demanding action be taken to better protect and promote women in the workforce, to prevent sexual harassment, and to hold any predators accountable.”
Chiming in, Committee Chairman Lamar Smith said no taxpayer dollars should be awarded to researchers who engage in harassment and inappropriate behavior toward colleagues or students under their charge.
“The Committee conducted a thorough investigation and made a series of recommendations to remedy this problem,” he said. “NSF’s final rule is a significant step towards addressing sexual misconduct in the academic and scientific communities.”
The GAO will now have to mull over these recommendations and make a decision. Seems like a no-brainer, but nothing is certain in the current Trump era. Still, sexual predators may not change their ways by considering moral arguments or bowing to social pressure, but threats to their funding money—and by virtue, their very livelihood—may actually have an impact.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the results of the NASEM survey.