Politics & Government

Federal grants may fund researchers with histories of sexual harassment, report finds

There’s a real risk that universities and federal agencies “are unknowingly funding researchers with a history of past sexual harassment findings,” Congress’ watchdog reported Wednesday.

Some federal agencies will have to develop new internal policies to be sure that they don’t continue to give grants to researchers who may have had a history of sexual harassment, John Neumann, the managing director in the Government Accountability Office’s branch focused on science and technology, told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Lawmakers from both parties said they were committed to passing a bill that would require federal agencies to have clear policies for stripping researchers of grants.

“No taxpayer dollars should be awarded to a researcher who engages in harassment and inappropriate behavior toward a colleague or a student,” said Rep. Frank Lucas, of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee.

Without change, many scientific fields will remain relatively closed off to the women who are often the targets of sexual harassment, Lucas said.

“There should no longer be any debate about the prevalence of sexual harassment in STEM and its consequences for U.S. leadership in science and innovation,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the Texas Democrat who chairs the committee. “The only discussion now should be about the most effective ways to address it.” STEM involves science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Neumann presented preliminary observations from an ongoing GAO study, which analyzes how well five federal grant-giving agencies are able to help prevent sexual harassment or pull funding from grantees who have proven to have histories of sexual harrassment.

These five agencies—the agriculture and energy departments, NASA, National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation—provide 80 percent of all federal research grant funding, Neumann said.

All five agencies have difficulty learning about specific sexual harassment cases, he said. Many universities, which launch investigations into sexual harassment reports, do not voluntarily tell the agencies of harassment reports, so the agencies often have to rely on news reports to find out if a grant recipient is accused of sexual harassment.

Jean Morrison, the Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Boston University, told the committee her university had a grant recipient last year accused of sexual harassment. It asked the National Science Foundation what to do. She said the foundation told the university not to worry about it, which she said caused a sense of uncertainty.

“It really revealed that neither (Boston University) nor NSF knew the right steps to take,” Morrison said, adding that the absence of guidelines made it hard for either organization to act.

The National Science Foundation has already taken steps to force grant recipients to disclose cases of sexual harassment to the foundation, Neumann said. NASA plans to do the same by the end of the year.

Paula Johnson, a representative of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, said that many researchers who have histories of sexual harassment often sign non-disclosure agreements with the universities firing them.

Because of this, the public often struggles to know which researchers may have histories of wrongdoing, which causes other universities to potentially hire sexual harassers. Johnson recommended that lawmakers make those non-disclosure agreements illegal.

Philip Kass, vice provost for academic affairs at the University of California, Davis, testified because his university has undertaken a new process which forces school faculty hoping for tenure to sign an agreement which forces them to disclose any past incidents of sexual harassment.

Kass said the program has deterred possible sexual harassers from looking for employment at UC Davis.

Johnson said lawmakers on the committee will continue to fight for passage of the Combatting Sexual Harassment in Science Act, which would force federal, research grant-giving agencies to formulate better policy for removing grant funding from researchers who are guilty of sexual harassment.

The bill has 89 cosponsors in the House., including 86 Democrats and three Republicans.