Top US science agencies received very few sexual harassment complaints from researchers at universities: Report

Top US science agencies received very few sexual harassment complaints from researchers at universities: Report

Five major science agencies in the US, which provide most of the federal Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) research grant funding to universities, received very few sexual harassment complaints from researchers at grantee universities from 2015 through 2019.

This is despite a 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which said that “sexual harassment is common in academic science, engineering, and medicine”.

The five federal agencies (three agencies from cabinet-level departments and two independent agencies) together funded approximately 80% of STEM research from the fiscal year 2015 through 2017, the latest data available, according to a report on Sexual Harassment in STEM Research, released by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).


These include Department of Agriculture, including the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA); Department of Energy (DOE); National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an independent agency; National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of Health and Human Services (HHS); and National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent agency.

Four of the five selected agencies received three or fewer complaints from individuals at grantee universities from fiscal year 2015 through 2019, according to a preliminary analysis of sexual harassment complaint information, the report said.

Sexual harassment complaints received by selected agencies, fiscal years 2015-2019. (US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Sexual Harassment in STEM Research)

“Based on preliminary information, the availability of agency staff and budget varies across the five selected agencies for efforts to address sexual harassment complaints at universities that use federal funds for STEM research. While four of the five agencies received three or fewer sexual harassment complaints from individuals at grantee universities from 2015 through 2019, changes to agency grantee policies or requirements could impact the number of complaints an agency receives and the amount of resources an agency needs to address them,” according to the GAO report, which contains preliminary observations on policies for university grantees and information sharing among selected agencies.


According to the report, in 2017, US universities were awarded over $15 billion in federal grant funding for STEM research.

“Federal agencies are required to enforce Title IX - a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs receiving federal financial assistance - including at universities they fund. Sexual harassment is not only degrading and illegal, it has a negative effect on the ability of women to engage in research at the same level as men. GAO was asked to review federal efforts to help prevent sexual harassment,” the report said.

Fiscal year 2017 federal obligations from five agencies for select areas of STEM basic research performed at universities and colleges (amount in dollars). (US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Sexual Harassment in STEM Research)

The GOA report said that while all five agencies coordinate to improve prevention, getting and sharing information is a challenge. What is further surprising is that most of the agencies learned about sexual harassment instances from the media and other sources, and not directly from the universities or other agencies.


“The DOE, NASA, NIH, and NSF stated 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. This situation may change at NSF and NASA, which have taken steps to modify their grant terms and conditions to require reporting of sexual harassment findings by grantees. Challenges in obtaining and sharing information on sexual harassment cases may increase the risk of a situation known as 'pass the harasser', in which a researcher with substantiated findings of sexual harassment obtains employment at another university or grants from another funding agency without the university or funding agency being aware of the researcher’s history,” said the GAO findings.

The report further said that to date, the five agencies have not evaluated the effectiveness of their grantee policies and procedures to prevent sexual harassment, although two agencies are in the process of planning such evaluations. “Two agencies are modifying the terms and conditions of grants to require grantees to report sexual harassment. NSF now requires grantees to increase transparency by reporting findings of sexual harassment to NSF, and NASA plans to implement the same requirement,” reveals the analysis.


The five agencies also vary in the way they provided detailed policies to grantees on sexual harassment. “Based on our preliminary analysis and interviews, all five selected agencies have taken some steps to promote information sharing and collaboration among agencies on the prevention of sexual harassment. But they also noted challenges to these efforts, such as the lack of information on sexual harassment cases. These challenges may increase the risk that universities or agencies are unknowingly funding researchers with a history of past sexual harassment findings,” the report said.

The 2018 report on Sexual Harassment of Women said that over 50% of women faculty and staff and 20-50% of women students encounter or experience sexually harassing conduct in academia.

Women of color, said the report, experience more harassment than white women, white men, and men of color experience. It said the cumulative effect of sexual harassment is considerable damage to “research integrity” and a “costly loss of talent” in academics. “Holding individuals and institutions responsible for sexual harassment and demonstrating that sexual harassment is a serious issue requires US federal funding agencies to be aware when principal investigators, co-principal investigators, and grant personnel have violated sexual harassment policies,” the report had said.


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