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Will the New Congress Take Up Sexual Harassment in Science?

Several members of Congress are already eying legislation to require universities to report taxpayer-funded harassers to the government.
Representative Jackie Speier (D-California) speaks to members of the press during a Democratic Caucus meeting to elect new leadership on Capitol Hill on November 28th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Representative Jackie Speier (D-California) has championed several anti-sexual harassment policies.

Representative Jackie Speier (D-California) promised on Wednesday that Congress would take action on sexual harassment in science.

Speier spoke during a large session at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting, which is a gathering of more than 25,000 Earth and space scientists. She promised that she would revive efforts to require universities to report to the government when they find that a taxpayer-funded professor has discriminated against, or harassed, others. When Speier first introduced her Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act in 2016, she said: "The bill didn't even receive a hearing in Congress. That is about to change in the new House of Representatives, come January." The audience burst into cries of "Woo!" and applause.

The act falls in line with recent demands from activists in the scientific community, who say that threatening federal funding is an important step to getting universities and other research institutions to crack down on harassers. Like other industries, science has been grappling with harsh attention on accused harassers in their midst; unlike some other industries, activists in the field have asked the government step in to help because the feds fund so much of the research that occurs in the United States.

So far, only the National Science Foundation has adopted an explicit policy requiring institutions to report harassers to them. "I want to see NIH [the National Institutes of Health] do the same, and I'm now crafting new legislation that's going to create even greater teeth into this program," Speier said. The NIH is one of America's best-funded science agencies, behind only the Department of Defense's research arm. Activists have also called out the NIH, specifically. As for Speier, she has previously championed anti-sexual harassment policies for the military and for Congress.

Speier is not the only member of Congress eying the science agencies' action against harassment. This fall, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology came to a bipartisan agreement that federal science grants should be tied to professional conduct. Afterward, the committee's ranking member, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), introduced an anti-harassment bill, on which Speier was a co-sponsor. That bill is expected to be re-introduced in 2019, Joanne Carney, the director of government relations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a separate session.