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Congress Is Demanding Answers About Why Federal Grants Are Given To Harassers In Science

A letter from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology demands an investigation into how federal science agencies are dealing with sexual harassment in the institutions they fund.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Lamar Smith

On Thursday, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology asked the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct an investigation of what federal agencies that fund science are doing about sexual harassment.

The letter attempts to bring more accountability to universities, which draw a substantial amount of research funding from federal programs, but are incentivized to keep sexual harassment investigations a secret.

“No person should be subjected to harassment in the workplace," Committee chair Lamar Smith told BuzzFeed News in a statement. "Our goal with the GAO report is to better understand the extent of the problem throughout the scientific community and ensure that recipients of federal research funding are worthy of the taxpayers’ trust."

The letter, signed by Smith and Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, points to "a disturbing number of cases" of inappropriate behavior in science. For example, the report cites University of California, Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, who resigned in 2015 after BuzzFeed News revealed that he had violated university policies with few consequences. Marcy had nearly $900,000 in active federal grants from NASA when he resigned.

The letter mentions several other prominent cases as well, including University of Washington microbiologist Michael Katze, who was fired in August, and Caltech astrophysicist Christian Ott, who resigned at the end of last year.

According to Title IX, institutions receiving federal funding are required to provide all students, regardless of sex, equal access to educational programs and activities.

Federal agencies awarding grants are supposed to take steps to ensure that the institutions are abiding by Title IX. But it's not clear how or whether the federal government is holding individual scientists accountable, the letter said.

A 2015 GAO report about women in STEM fields found that two of six agencies reviewed — the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) — weren't conducting reviews of Title IX compliance. DOD and the Department of Energy (DOE) showed evidence of disparities between success rates of men and women.

The findings were "troubling," the letter stated, so the Committee hoped to find out more about how the agencies were responding to sexual harassment cases.

According to the National Science Foundation's National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, the following federal agencies award the most funding to universities and colleges: National Institutes of Health (NIH, part of HHS) awards $16.6 billion, National Science Foundation (NSF) awards $5.3 billion, DOD awards $3.5 billion, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) with $1.4 billion, DOE with $1.3 billion, and NASA with $1.1 billion.

The letter asks NIH, NSF, USDA, DOE, and NASA to report: how many cases of sexual harassment or assault have actually been investigated at their agencies; what they do when they receive complaints about a grantee; and whether they require grantees to inform them of allegations of sexual harassment or gender discrimination.

In 2016, a bill by California Rep. Jackie Speier, called the ‘‘Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act," attempted to require universities to report a professor's sexual harassment or assault to any federal agency from which it has received research money. Most radically, the bill also required agencies to take sexual harassment findings into consideration when deciding who would receive grant money.

That effort did not pass, but Speier told BuzzFeed News that she intends to reintroduce it later this year.

"I’m happy to see that the Science Committee is taking up the issue of sexual violence in academia," she said. "I hope to work with my colleagues on the Science Committee to ensure that this legislation swiftly moves through Congress, so that women and men in the STEM fields can focus their energies on making great discoveries rather than fending off unwanted advances."

Azeen Ghorayshi is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Her PGP Fingerprint is 672A 7C08 9443 A95F 9D85 78FB 91EB 9C30 B197 5963.

Contact Azeen Ghorayshi at azeen.ghorayshi@buzzfeed.com.

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