A Good Move from Chairman Smith and the House Science Committee: Tackling Sexual Harassment in Science

January 22, 2018 | 3:11 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

The government may not be operating this week and Congress has been an ongoing part of the many attacks on science in the past year but last week Congress did something good. A bipartisan effort in the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will look at sexual harassment in science and ways to crack down on it. This is big and I’m ecstatic. In a rare bipartisan moment, Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson have come together to work on a pressing problem in science.

Despite a bumpy recent history on supporting science, the House Science Committee last week took a bipartisan step forward to address sexual harassment in science. Photo: Gretchen Goldman

Last week, the House Science Committee sent a letter asking the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) for an investigation into what federal science funding agencies, like the National Science Foundation and NASA, are doing to address sexual harassment in the scientific community (building on a bipartisan letter the committee sent in October investigating sexual harassment claims against a Boston University professor).

Under Title IX, institutions receiving federal money are required to take steps to ensure they are complying—i.e, that the institutions are “providing all students, regardless of sex, equal access to educational programs and activities.” However, it is less clear how much federal agencies are currently implementing this requirement with the academic institutions they fund. That’s why the committee is trying to get answers about how federal agencies are handling this issue, especially when it comes to individual cases.

A tide of reckoning: #MeToo and beyond

This is an important step to help the scientific community think about how to address this large (and now more visible) problem. Here’s why this is big. As the #MeToo movement has grown, we’ve seen more and more survivors of sexual harassment and abuse come forward and their abusers face consequences. A tide of reckoning has come and doesn’t look like it will stop any time soon.

The scientific community is no exception when it comes to problems of sexual harassment and abuse. Problems of sexual harassment, particularly where the offenders—often professors or other senior researchers—are in positions of power over their accuser—often a student—are far too common. Several elements of the scientific community make these issues a bigger challenge. One is prevalence of field research, where small teams of researchers are far removed from academic institutions and (potentially) societal norms. An alarming number of women report harassment happening when they were early career researchers working in the field. Another challenge is the fact that junior researchers are often very dependent upon their advisor and the small circles of niche fields for future jobs and collaborators. Burning relationships can have professional costs and that makes coming forward with an accusation potential career suicide.

For this and other reasons, many choose not to report such instances to proper authorities. And perhaps more alarmingly, when instances are reported, universities have often failed to take action and allowed such instances to continue for years. As the committee’s letter states, “this raises a question of whether the current systems and protections in place to address harassment are ineffective, inadequate, or inaccessible to those who need them.”

Accountability and consequences for sexual harassers

Several high-profile cases and events in recent years have laid the groundwork for the scientific community to join other spheres in holding individuals accountable for their actions. Thus far, it has been a challenge to ensure that abusers face appropriate consequences and aren’t just shuffled somewhere else within the scientific community where they can continue their inappropriate behavior.

For example, on several occasions, professors accused of sexual harassment have been asked to leave their university only to get a similar position at a different institution where their record is clean and they are free to continue their behavior at only a minor inconvenience to their career. This isn’t exactly a strong incentive against the behavior. That’s why this Congressional inquiry stands to have an impact.

Focusing on the role of granting agencies could create consequences for abusers and importantly it would hold to account universities that have long found it easier to avoid addressing such issues upfront. Granting agencies tying public funding to behavior and withholding funding from harassers would hit ’em where it hurts—grant money, aka, the currency of major universities and their professors. If anything will get universities to take seriously issues of sexual harassment, it’s the threat of losing grant money.

The House Science Committee: an inconsistent history on science

Another way this move by the House Science Committee is remarkable is because of the politics. This is a bipartisan effort to benefit science coming out of Chairman Smith’s House Science Committee. Despite a long history of bipartisanship to support science, the science committee under Chairman Smith has been a different story. From inserting politics into grant selection, to targeting scientists with invasive subpoenas, to legislative efforts to dismantle the EPA’s use of science, Lamar Smith has been leading the effort to attack science before the Trump Administration brought more attention to the issue. It is encouraging to see Chairman Smith use his position to help scientists, especially women scientists, who have been adversely affected by this issue. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a new era on the Science Committee where we can once again see bipartisan support for advancing our nation’s scientific enterprise.