“This Is a Moral Issue”: Hearing Calls Attention to Sexual Harassment in Science

[Editor’s Note: This post was written by CRA’s new Tisdale Policy Fellow for Summer 2019, Jesse Anderson.]

On Wednesday, June 12 the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee convened a hearing, titled Combating Sexual Harassment in Science, to explore what the federal research agencies are, and are not, doing to confront sexual and gender harassment in the Federal research community. The committee received important insights regarding the measures that have been implemented across different Federal agencies and research fields. Though the committee agreed that the agencies need to do more to confront this issue, there was not a consensus on specific policies Congress wants to see.

Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), in her opening statement, outlined many issues that panelists later discussed; specifically, that the reporting process is often convoluted for victims, that addressing the prevalence of sexual harassment in the STEM field is “a moral issue,” and how investing in the brightest minds in the field is vital to advancing STEM research. Johnson noted that the country’s investment in research “needs to draw on all of our nation’s talent to return the best possible science for the benefit of society,” which is less likely to occur in the absence of a safe work environment. Johnson pointed out that it is easier and more fiscally advantageous for institutions to “allow a bad actor to quietly resign and often move on to another institution.” This culture contributes to the fact that a mere 6 percent of graduate students and faculty who are sexually harassed formally report their experience to their institution.

Ranking Member Congressman Frank Lucas (R-OK), echoing the chairwoman, stressed the economic and social costs of the problem of sexual harassment in the research community, saying that, “engaging more women in STEM studies and careers is essential to America’s competitiveness.” The primary factor driving women away from computing research fields, according to expert opinion highlighted by Lucas in his testimony, was the “culture in science.”

The committee heard testimony from John Neumann, the Managing Director of Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics in the U.S. Government Accountability Office; Paula A. Johnson, the President of Wellesley College; Jean Morrison, the Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Boston University; and Philip H. Kass, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and a Professor of Analytic Epidemiology at the University of California, Davis. The witnesses provided insights into what Congress can do to bolster efforts against sexual assault in scientific research fields. During the hearing, the Representatives on both sides of the aisle agreed that harassment and gender discrimination cannot be tolerated within the Federal science research enterprise and that research granting agencies need to do more. However, what specific actions need to be taken by the agencies was not discussed.

The panelists called attention to inconsistencies in the way in which different agencies handled sexual assault cases, which can leave survivors confused and unclear of what options are available for accountability. Newman – who specializes in overseeing federal research and development programs – noted that these discrepancies in reporting and policies mean that agencies, “rarely learn about instances of sexual harassment from voluntary reporting from universities or other federal agencies and instead rely on other sources such as news reports.” Newman argued that it’s incumbent on these agencies to enforce Title IX standards at universities due to the fact that they provide billions of dollars in research grants annually. Paula Johnson, who testified in her capacity as a co-chair for the National Academies report “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine,” echoed Newman’s sentiments, arguing that federal research agencies need to see the issue of sexual and gender harassment in science fields as a public health concern. In addition to the potential for women to leave the field due to sustained harassment, Johnson argued that, “progress in closing the gender gap in science, engineering, and medicine is jeopardized by the persistence of sexual harassment in these fields…women are often bullied or harassed out of career pathways.” Johnson argued that this problem necessitates system-wide changes.

Morrison, of Boston University, stressed the university’s commitment to fundamentally changing the “tough, unforgiving, and unwelcoming workplace,” that many STEM fields have adopted. She too advocated for the implementation of “one clear set of rules at the federal level,” in conjunction with data-driven research into the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. Morrison highlighted many measures that have proven successful for curtailing rates of sexual harassment on campus, such as a mandatory online sexual misconduct prevention training for over 34,000 undergraduate and graduate students and 11,000 faculty and staff. Kass, from UC Davis, highlighted a similar pilot program that has functioned as “a pre-screening deterrent,” which has resulted in “14 candidates requiring reference checks, 23 academic institutions contacted, 19 responses received, and zero instances where discipline was provided.” This pilot program has allowed UC Davis to identify those whose, “behavior is inconsistent with the university’s faculty code of conduct and principles of community.” Both Kass and Morrison lauded the recommendations present in the bill, as they included many core elements featured in successful programs at their respective universities.

As highlighted by Dr. Johnson during her testimony, “if half of us are held back, we squander potential.” Judging by the questions from the members of the Science Committee, Congress agrees with this viewpoint. The general consensus during the hearing was the need to strengthen efforts at the Federal research agencies to challenge the culture of sexual harassment in the their fields. The issue of sexual and gender harassment in the sciences is likely to receive more attention from Congress going forward; CRA will continue to follow this and will report back with new developments.

UPDATE: On June 20th, the House Science Committee marked up H.R. 36 and passed it unanimously. The legislation will now move to the full House for consideration; it will likely pass the full chamber, though it’s unclear when that will happen.

“This Is a Moral Issue”: Hearing Calls Attention to Sexual Harassment in Science