Robert Neubecker

Bipartisan bill on sexual harassment signals strong interest by Congress

The new chairperson of and top Republican on the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives have teamed up to introduce legislation that would require federal research agencies to adopt a common policy on sexual harassment. The bipartisan bill signals that Congress may be ready to address an issue that has roiled the scientific community and generated calls to punish federally funded researchers found guilty of harassment.

The legislation (H.R. 36) was introduced last week by Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), the top Democrat on the science panel, and Frank Lucas (OK), the panel’s ranking Republican. It is identical to a bill that Johnson introduced in the fall of 2018. But that proposal was embraced only by Democrats, then in the minority, and it died when the 115th Congress ended.

Democrats are now in charge of the House. And although Johnson can set the agenda for her committee, obtaining Lucas’s support suggests she hopes to do more than simply score political points. A bill backed by the panel’s two senior leaders stands a much better chance of moving through the House with the overwhelming support needed to win over the Republican-led Senate and, ultimately, President Donald Trump.

Johnson calls the bill “an important first step” in making sure women can succeed in science and engineering “without being degraded, harassed, or abused because of their gender.” And she favors taking an approach similar to how the National Science Foundation (NSF) has said it plans to deal with the problem.

The NSF policy, announced in 2018, requires grantee institutions to tell the agency whenever they have found an NSF-funded investigator guilty of sexual harassment or put that person on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation. In the past, NSF and other federal agencies have been caught by surprise by media reports that grantees are being investigated for alleged sexual harassment.

Johnson’s bill directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to come up with “a uniform set of policy guidelines” that research agencies would follow in monitoring the activities of grantees. And it says those new guidelines “shall include” the two reporting requirements that NSF has adopted.

No other federal agency has gone as far as NSF. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has been under intense pressure from Congress and some outside groups to take a firmer stance against sexual harassment by its grantees. But NIH Director Francis Collins has said the agency faces “legal constraints” on its oversight authority that don’t apply to NSF. Although the science committee doesn’t have jurisdiction over NIH, Johnson sees her bill as a way to remove such hurdles and speed up that process.

The legislation is silent on how federal agencies should use the information they receive from institutions. Representative Jackie Speier (D–CA), a leading voice on the issue, plans to reintroduce a bill she wrote in 2016 that would have required agencies to consider any finding of sexual harassment against a researcher in deciding whether to award them a grant. But Speier has also signed on to Johnson’s bill.

H.R. 36 would give NSF the authority to spend $17 million on research to investigate “the factors contributing to, and consequences of, sexual harassment” and to support “interventions to reduce the incidence and negative consequences of such harassment.” It suggests one of the possible topics could be “alternatives to the hierarchical and dependent relationships in academia that have been shown to create higher levels of risk for sexual harassment.” The bill also calls for a survey of the impact of the problem in U.S. higher education and suggests that OSTP ask the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to update its guide to responsible conduct in research.