A Proposed New Law Could Help Reduce Sexual Harassment in the Sciences

The Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act would compel America's science agencies to hold taxpayer-funded labs accountable for harassment.
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A House of Representatives committee today passed an act aimed at reducing sexual harassment in labs that receive funds from taxpayers. The act still has a long way to go before it would become law, but this is an important first step.

The Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act of 2019 would:

  • Give out government grants to study sexual harassment in science, including minorities' experiences with harassment, how to reduce harassment's detrimental effects on its targets, and alternatives to the intense mentor-mentee relationship that's now a part of most scientists' training. Many activists think that the mentorship aspect of training is a major contributor to the high rates of harassment in science, because mentors have so much sway over their mentees' future careers.
  • Direct the government to create one uniform policy about when research institutions that get federal funding need to notify the feds if a research leader is accused of sexual harassment. Current policies vary a lot between agencies, as I reported earlier this month. Some agencies don't have any policy at all. This confusion allows scientists whose employers have already found them guilty of harassment to continue to be in charge of federal grants.
  • Tell the White House to "consider" requiring universities that receive government science grants to make public how many sexual harassment complaints they get every year.
  • Appropriate $17.4 million to the National Science Foundation to carry out the law.

Signaling how important the issue would be to her, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–Texas), chair of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, introduced the act on the very first day of the current Congress—January 3rd, 2019. The act has bipartisan support in the committee, judging from a hearing I attended this month, and from the fact that the committee's top Republican, Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, has enthusiastically co-sponsored the bill. It's been endorsed by dozens of scientists' groups. 

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