Efforts to Curb Sexual Harassment in Science Move Forward
July 31, 2019

Efforts in Congress and the federal science agencies to deal with sexual harassment in science and research have continued over the summer, with the House giving final approval to a bill to address the problem and NASA moving on rule changes similar to those implemented by the National Science Foundation (NSF) last year.

On July 24, the House approved the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act (H.R. 36), sending the bill to the Senate, where it was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Given the upcoming August recess, it’s unclear whether and when that chamber will take up the measure. Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) also introduced​ a version of the bill in April, but no action has been taken yet.

H.R. 36 was introduced in March by House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK). It draws upon recommendations made in a report released last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and also directs science agencies to follow the NSF’s lead by requiring their grantee institutions to report incidents of sexual harassment.

On a related note, NASA has issued a proposed change to the terms and conditions of its grant awards. The change will require grant recipient institutions to inform the agency about harassment in NASA-funded research programs. Comments are being accepted on the proposal through Aug. 16.

According to the National Academies study, between 20 percent and 50 percent of female students and more than 50 percent of female faculty and staff experienced sexually harassing behavior while in academia. The report suggests a range of practices for preventing sexual harassment, such developing clear, accessible, and consistent policies on sexual harassment and standards of behavior; combining anti-harassment efforts with civility-promotion programs; moving beyond legal compliance to address culture and climate; and considering "power-diffusion mechanisms" to reduce the risk of sexual harassment.

ACE continues to engage with the National Academies through the Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education, which was established after the publication of the report. The four main goals of the collaborative are to:

  • Raise awareness about sexual harassment and how it occurs, the consequences of sexual harassment, and the organizational characteristics and recommended approaches that can prevent it;

  • Share and elevate evidence-based institutional policies and strategies to reduce and prevent sexual harassment; 

  • Contribute to setting the research agenda, and gather and apply research results across institutions;

  • Develop a standard for measuring progress toward reducing and preventing sexual harassment in higher education.