Get More Out of STEM Grants by Making a Plan to Tackle Sexual Harassment, Watchdog Says

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Agencies’ processes for reviewing complaints don’t reflect the full picture.

In 2017 alone, the media covered at least 97 allegations of sexual harassment at universities. But a new Government Accountability Report shows five agencies that dole out STEM grants received a total of fewer than 40 complaints between 2015 and 2017—and that lax oversight could cost them.

Together the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the departments of Energy, Health and Human Services (including the National Institutes of Health) and Agriculture (including the National Institute of Food and Agriculture) made up about 80% of research grants for education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics since 2015. 

In 2018, total government spending on STEM education at university—crucial for tackling the workforce challenges in a range of fields including cybersecurity—amounted to $27 billion.

But, as GAO notes, environments where sexual harassment persists could be blocking half of those involved from reaching their full potential. 

Agencies are statutorily responsible for enforcing the law against sexual harassment, in part by conducting periodic compliance reviews of institutions they fund. Violators could end up having agencies revoke money. 

But the granter-grantee ratio makes this a challenge, according to the GAO report. Energy and NASA have a requirement to do at least two reviews per year. None of the five agencies GAO examined did more than three reviews in a fiscal year. 

“According to officials, the five agencies we reviewed have not suspended or terminated funding to enforce Title IX, including sexual harassment,” GAO noted. 

Some agencies try to make up for review shortcomings by encouraging schools to educate students on subtler cases of hostility toward women and foster programs to teach bystanders how to appropriately react to an incident.

“NASA officials told us this approach mitigates the fact that the agency only has the resources to conduct compliance reviews at a few of its hundreds of grantees annually,” GAO wrote.

Some agencies proactively issued “promising practices” publicly after completing reviews. Some agencies did not. 

Another challenge is that complaints get processed through the agencies’ offices for civil rights in general, so it takes a while.

“These offices are responsible for more than just addressing complaints and preventing sexual harassment at grantees, including universities,” GAO wrote. “These offices oversee a number of civil rights, diversity, and inclusion efforts for the entire agency. Moreover, most of these offices also address internal employee sexual harassment complaints and other discrimination issues.

To get on the same page, and ensure taxpayer dollars are being put to the best use, GAO recommends “establishing clear goals and an overall plan.”

“Although all five agencies have established a variety of prevention efforts, they have done so without a plan, and without methods to evaluate their policies and how they communicate them,” the agency said. “Establishing a plan can help agencies assess progress and manage change.”

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