GAO Issues Preliminary Findings on Agency Actions on Sexual Harassment in STEM
GAO Issues Preliminary Findings on Agency Actions on Sexual Harassment in STEM

June 2019

On June 12, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued preliminary findings of a study on policies for university grantees and information sharing among five science agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

John Neumann, managing director of science, technology assessment, and analytics with the GAO, discussed the findings as part of a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on addressing sexual harassment in STEM.

In his testimony, Neumann highlighted the budget and staff capacity for addressing harassment complaints at grantee universities, communications of agency policies to grantees, and information sharing and collaboration. The key preliminary findings include:

  • Sexual harassment complaints at each of the five agencies covered are handled by the agency’s civil rights or diversity offices, and their capacity to handle complaints varies based on levels of funding and staff.
  • Four of the five agencies received a complaint of sexual harassment between fiscal years 2015 and 2019, with NSF receiving 14. In his testimony, Neumann noted that the increase in reporting to NSF may be due to the changes in the terms and conditions for awards requiring universities to report harassment complaints against principal investigators of grants.
  • NSF, NIH, and NASA have developed guidance documents for university grantees. The Energy Department and NIFA have produced general statements regarding harassment and discrimination.
  • All of the agencies have worked to promote information sharing on university compliance reviews through the Department of Justice Title IX STEM Working Group, but do not regularly discuss sexual harassment. Each agency has also expressed willingness to join an interagency group convened by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to address sexual harassment in STEM beyond Title IX compliance reviews.

The hearing also provided an opportunity for witnesses to discuss the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act (HR 36), which the committee advanced on June 20. The other witnesses were Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College and chair of the committee that produced the National Academies report Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Jean Morrison, provost and chief academic officer at Boston University; and Philip H. Kass, vice provost for academic affairs and professor of analytic epidemiology at the University of California, Davis. Boston University and the University of California, Davis, are participants in the AAAS SEA Change program, and each received a bronze designation for institutional efforts to support diversity and inclusion.