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Committee Calls for GAO Probe on 'Pernicious Problem' of Sexual Harassment in Science Community

A researcher works with a box of frozen flu virus strains at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health on Dec. 19, 2017, in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON — The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee wants the Government Accountability Office to investigate and report back on sexual harassment within the federal science community.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), who have led a committee investigation that began in October as the #MeToo movement gathered steam, have asked that the GAO specifically take a look at research scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, USDA, Department of Energy and NASA.

In a Thursday letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, the lawmakers cited “a disturbing number of cases” that have emerged in the scientific community “regarding inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment of women in the scientific and academic communities.”

“Sexual harassment has a significant negative impact on the ability of female students and early career researchers to engage in research at the same level as their male peers. By withdrawing from research to escape harassment or being actively sidelined and discriminated against as a form of retaliation for refusing unwanted sexual advances, female students can be prevented from pursuing the experiences they need to develop into independent researchers,” Smith and Johnson wrote.

“Often, this results in talented women struggling to compete and complete their academic careers, ultimately deciding to leave science altogether,” they added. “Equitable access to education and research experiences cannot be ensured for women in the sciences until gender discrimination, implicit bias, and sexual harassment are no longer potential barriers to their success.”

Smith and Johnson noted increasing allegations that have highlighted “this pernicious problem,” including a Boston University geologist who “sexually harassed a former graduate student during long-duration research expeditions at a remote Antarctic field site.”

Under Title IX, they noted, “federal agencies awarding grants to educational institutions are obligated to take steps to ensure that such institutions do not discriminate based on gender,” and the grant-awarding agency can terminate the federal funding if scientists are harassing students. A 2015 GAO review found not all agencies were paying attention to Title IX compliance.

The lawmakers want the GAO to now report back to Congress about current Title IX review and compliance, in addition to how many sexual abuse or harassment cases are currently before the agencies.