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Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX)

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX)

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Lawmakers want to know: Do U.S. women face bias in winning federal research grants?

Do women researchers have a fair shot at winning grants from NASA and the U.S. departments of energy (DOE) and defense (DOD)? It’s impossible to answer that question, says a new report from a congressional watchdog agency, because those agencies don’t collect information on the demographic characteristics of the people who apply for funding.

The top Democrats on three committees in the U.S. House of Representatives—all women—are concerned that “gender bias is inhibiting women and girls” from pursuing careers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. So last year they asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to ask the six leading federal research agencies for data on their applicant pools. The two agencies that fund the largest amount of basic research—the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF)—keep careful records as part of an ongoing effort to monitor whether agency officials and grant reviewers are discriminating against women and minority scientists. But the three agencies with the next biggest portfolios—DOD, DOE, and NASA—“do not routinely collect demographic information about researchers who submit grant proposals and receive awards,” GAO reports in a 17 March letter to representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), Rosa DeLauro (D–CT), and Louise Slaughter (D–NY).

GAO didn’t know what it was going to find, says the report’s author, Melissa Emrey-Arras. But Johnson had an inkling: In January she reintroduced legislation that would require all federal research agencies to collect demographic information from applicants and give it to NSF for inclusion in its biennial compendium, Science and Engineering Indicators. The bill, the STEM Opportunities Act (H.R. 467), proposes several steps aimed at leveling the STEM playing field for women.

However, the bill stands little chance of passage in a body controlled by Republicans. So Johnson, the top Democrat on the House science committee, teamed up with two other ranking members to find out what data already exist.

The three agencies gave various reasons for not tracking gender. The most common, GAO says, is that they had no use for the data. They also said their computer systems “lacked the capacity” to collect the data or that funding units within the agency use different IT systems that are not compatible. One agency said its lawyers advised not asking applicants about gender or ethnicity. And DOE’s office of nuclear energy, GAO discovered, discards all applications that are rejected.

Although GAO was careful not to draw any conclusions, the report implies that none of those reasons pass the smell test. The White House budget office has told agencies that they are allowed to collect data on gender and even provides sample templates, the report notes. Participation is voluntary, it notes. NIH and NSF have long used such data to analyze whether its grantsmaking procedures are gender-neutral, GAO adds. In contrast, Emrey-Arras says, it’s impossible to analyze whether there is any possible bias at the three agencies in success rates or funding levels for women “if you don’t have a denominator.”

The 18-page report is a preliminary finding; accordingly, none of the agencies submitted any comments. The final GAO report, which hopes to explore whether success rates at federal research agencies differ by gender, is due out this fall and is expected to include recommendations.

In the meantime, the three legislators are hoping that the three agencies change their tune. In an 8 April letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, the lawmakers “respectively request that each of you examine your internal policies … and strongly urge you to include the collection of demographic data that would allow grant-making by your agency to be examined for gender equality.”