Women in STEM Research:
Better Data and Information Sharing Could Improve Oversight of Federal Grant-making and Title IX Compliance
GAO-16-14: Published: Dec 3, 2015. Publicly Released: Dec 14, 2015.
What GAO Found
GAO's analysis of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) research grant awards made between fiscal years 2009 and 2013 identified no disparities in success rates between women and men at three agencies selected for review, but data limitations provided limited insight into success rates at three other agencies selected for review. At two of the agencies with data limitations—the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Energy (DOE)—GAO found evidence of disparities in success rates for women and men within certain agency components. Data limitations at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) prevented GAO's analysis of success rates altogether. This lack of complete, linked electronic proposal and award data at NASA and some components at DOD and DOE impacts their ability to fully evaluate their programs' performance against their stated goals of funding the most qualified scientists, irrespective of gender. Adhering to federal internal control standards regarding data collection of an entire process can ensure that these agencies have the data needed for effective program management and monitoring.
Success Rates between Women and Men at Federal STEM Grant-making Agencies
Two of six agencies GAO reviewed that fund STEM research at universities—DOD and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—are not conducting required Title IX compliance reviews. Since HHS oversees Title IX compliance of National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding recipients, which account for the bulk of STEM research grantees, billions of federal research dollars may not be subject to potential Title IX oversight. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is designated by Executive Order to coordinate Title IX compliance across federal agencies, including information sharing, but it has no formal information sharing process among STEM agencies. Officials at five of the six agencies GAO interviewed reported a desire for DOJ to facilitate interagency information sharing on Title IX best practices for compliance activities. Without such information sharing, these STEM agencies may miss opportunities to improve their compliance programs and coordinate with each other.
GAO identified through a literature review and expert interviews 13 potential actions federal agencies could take to address the underrepresentation of women in STEM research. These actions fell into four areas: (1) enhancing agency leadership and collaboration, (2) establishing family-friendly policies for grantees, (3) overseeing the research proposal review process, and (4) funding and assisting academic institutions. While not all of the actions GAO identified are relevant to or feasible for each agency, all six agencies in GAO's review indicated that they are either taking actions in some of these areas, or would be willing to explore their applicability. Most of the agency officials GAO spoke with acknowledged the potential benefits of these actions.
Why GAO Did This Study
In fiscal year 2014, U.S. universities received nearly $25 billion in federal grant funding for STEM research. Studies show women are largely underrepresented in STEM fields. Federal agencies are required to enforce Title IX—a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs receiving any federal financial assistance—including at universities they fund. GAO was asked to provide information on federal grant-making to women in STEM.
This report examines: (1) the extent to which differences exist in federal grant awards between women and men in STEM fields, (2) the extent to which federal agencies enforce Title IX at universities they fund for STEM research, and (3) possible actions federal agencies could take to address the representation of women in STEM research. GAO analyzed data on all STEM research grants made in fiscal years 2009 through 2013—the most recent data available—by the six federal agencies that provided 90 percent of STEM research funding in fiscal year 2012 through 2014; reviewed literature, federal laws and regulations, and agency documents; interviewed federal officials; and consulted 19 STEM diversity experts.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that DOD, DOE, and NASA collect additional data; DOD and HHS conduct Title IX compliance reviews; and DOJ facilitate information sharing among STEM agencies. Agencies agreed in principle, but some cited potential implementation challenges. GAO maintains action is feasible and warranted as discussed in the report.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: DOD agreed with our recommendation to implement additional data collection efforts. As of August, 2017, the Basic Research Office (BRO) has drafted an implementation plan and schedule for the collection of demographic data on grant applicants and lifecycle grant data. As part of this, BRO has identified a number of issues to be addressed and resolved within DoD. One of these areas is the protection of any information collected to assess the success rates of women as Principal Investigators (PIs)/co-PIS under STEM Research grants and cooperative agreements. As a result, before BRO proceeds with its planned actions, they are working with the Office of Information Management, WHS, to ensure there are no issues related to the Privacy Act. The agency did not provide a timeline to GAO for when these actions are expected to be completed.
Recommendation: In order to ensure complete, analyzable records regarding research grant award decisions are available for management and analysis, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics to lead the implementation of additional data collection efforts in coordination with DOD's grant-making components. These should include: (1) Retaining complete records of pre-proposal, proposal, and award data, including a record of proposal disposition, in linked electronic files to facilitate aggregate, statistical analysis of the grant-making process, including the calculation of success rates. (2) Collecting demographic, education, and career information from applicants, on a voluntary basis, that is not available to proposal reviewers but is used for analysis of success rates.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense
Comments: DOE generally agreed with our recommendation to implement additional data collection efforts. According to DOE officials, as of September, 2017, of the four components audited at DOE, all four have taken actions toward implementing the recommendation and one component has completed its implementation. Specifically, the Office of Science began collecting investigator demographics during the second quarter of fiscal year 2015 and already retained complete records that enabled the calculation of success rates. Three additional DOE components conducted a joint feasibility study and all concur that it is feasible to collect data on demographic, education and career information of applicants. The Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) revised its approach to data collection and now retains complete grant life cycle information for each individual award, including complete records of pre-proposal, proposal, and award data in linked electronic files. NE is also changing existing data systems to input/track voluntarily submitted demographic information on Principle Investigators on applications to facilitate aggregate, statistical analysis of the grant-making process, including the calculation of success rates. The agency notes that for NE, the completion of the actions required to implement this recommendation is estimated to take up to 12 months. Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) participated in the joint feasibility study regarding the collection of demographic data, but have not completed any actions to implement such data collection.
Recommendation: In order to ensure complete, analyzable records regarding research grant award decisions are available for management and analysis, the Secretary of Energy should direct DOE's grant-making agencies to implement additional data collection efforts, which should include: (1) Retaining complete records of pre-proposal, proposal, and award data, including a record of proposal disposition, in linked electronic files to facilitate aggregate, statistical analysis of the grant-making process, including the calculation of success rates. (2) Collecting demographic, education, and career information from applicants, on a voluntary basis, that is not available to proposal reviewers but is used for analysis of success rates.
Agency Affected: Department of Energy
Comments: NASA agreed with our recommendation and indicated it will begin collecting basic demographic, education, and career data from its research grant applicants on a voluntary basis by the end of fiscal year 2016. In addition, NASA noted it will explore its ability to consolidate proposal and award data as part of the ongoing update to its procurement and grants management systems. As of September 2017, NASA officials reported that the notice of grant award document (form 1687) was modified to require entry of the proposal number on the form in order to capture the linkage between proposal and award. When the transition to the new contract/grant writing system (Procurement for Public Sector) occurred in June 2017, NASA began using the amended award notice. NASA states they are continuing to investigate system options for fine tuning this cross-referencing methodology. However, as of September 2017, there were no stated plans to collect or track demographic, education, or career characteristics of grant applicants in such a way as to facilitate the analysis of success rates.
Recommendation: As NASA begins to collect demographic data on its grant proposals and awards, the NASA Administrator should include the following key components: (1) Retain complete records of pre-proposal, proposal, and award data, including a record of proposal disposition, in linked electronic files to facilitate aggregate, statistical analysis of the grant-making process, including the calculation of success rates. (2) Collect demographic, education, and career information from applicants, on a voluntary basis, that is not available to proposal reviewers but is used for analysis of success rates.
Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In February 2016, the department hosted a meeting of the broad interagency STEM Working Group at which it informed agencies of its availability to assist them with Title IX enforcement and presented on Title IX enforcement in the STEM context. In a September 2017 letter, DOJ officials stated that DOJ has taken several actions to increase information sharing about Title IX enforcement between agencies. Since the February 2016 meeting of the STEM Working Group, DOJ has held quarterly meetings with the six federal STEM agencies that were the focus of the GAO report. The meetings have included discussions of the Title IX compliance review process, current compliance activities, recent case law and other developments related to Title IX and STEM. DOJ reports positive feedback from agencies regarding these meetings and they plan to continue holding them on a quarterly basis.
Recommendation: To improve Title IX enforcement by federal STEM grant-making agencies, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ Civil Rights Division should establish a process to facilitate information sharing across federal STEM grant-making agencies regarding current Title IX compliance efforts to promote equitable access to STEM research funds.
Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Civil Rights Division
Comments: DOD agreed with our recommendation and noted it is in the process of revising current DOD guidance which will address its Title IX enforcement requirements. In a conversation with GAO in September 2017, a DOD official stated that the agency is in the process of formulating instructions related to both Title IX and Title VI that they believe will address the recommendation regarding Title IX enforcement. To date, these actions are not complete as they are still in the process of developing appropriate language.
Recommendation: To comply with Title IX enforcement requirements, the Secretary of the Department of Defense, which funds STEM research at universities, should direct the Director of the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity to ensure that Title IX compliance reviews of DOD's grantees are periodically conducted.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense
Comments: HHS indicated it would consult with NIH and initiate a sex discrimination compliance review program that includes grantee institutions with STEM programs. We will update the status of this recommendation when the agency provides documentation that these efforts have been completed.
Recommendation: To comply with Title IX enforcement requirements, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which funds STEM research at universities, should ensure that Title IX compliance reviews of NIH's grantees are periodically conducted.
Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services