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Lawmakers Question ‘Seriousness’ of Antarctica Contractor’s Response to Sexual Assaults

MAY 11, 2023
In a bipartisan letter, the leaders of the House Science Committee accused Leidos, the logistics contractor for the U.S. Antarctic Program, of presenting inaccurate information and failing to fully cooperate with a National Science Foundation investigation of pervasive sexual harassment and assault on the continent.
Jacob Taylor headshot
Senior Editor for Science Policy, FYI American Institute of Physics

McMurdo station at night.

The U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station seen at night in 2015. (Photo credit - Joshua Swanson / NSF)

Federal contractor Leidos is under increasing pressure for its response to sexual assault and harassment at the facilities it operates for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). Last week, House Science Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) sent a letter to the company stating they are concerned it is “failing to confront this issue with the seriousness it demands.”

The committee has been investigating the issue in the wake of a report the National Science Foundation commissioned in 2021 that documented through surveys and focus groups a pervasive problem of “sexual assault, sexual harassment, and stalking” in Antarctica. Lucas and Lofgren’s letter accuses Leidos of inaccurately reporting it had received no reports of sexual assault. It further alleges that Leidos employees are not fully cooperating with investigators from NSF, which is the lead agency for the USAP and funds much of the work U.S. researchers conduct on the continent.

Meanwhile, NSF is implementing new measures in Antarctica to address the problem, coordinated by a new Sexual Assault and Harassment Prevention and Response (SAHPR) program within its Office of Equity and Civil Rights. This week, the National Science Board, the agency’s governance body, received a briefing on the progress of those efforts from NSF Chief Operating Officer Karen Marrongelle.

Science Committee dismayed by Leidos’ response to inquiries

Leidos first came under Science Committee scrutiny at a hearing in December, at which the chief operating officer for the company’s civil group, Kathleen Naeher, testified alongside Marrongelle. At that hearing, now-retired Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) pointed to NSF’s contractual relationship with Leidos as an important part of the problem in Antarctica, saying, “Some feel NSF has been hiding behind contractor human resources policies to avoid accountability.”

Noting NSF had already modified its contract with Leidos, Johnson asked Marrongelle whether the agency would use the contract’s expiration in 2025 as an opportunity to make further changes that would reinforce its oversight and leverage. Marrongelle replied that NSF intended to assess the effects of its contract modifications on matters such as personnel vetting, response times to allegations, and subcontractor management, and then incorporate what it learns into the next competition for the contract.

Asked by Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) about the number of allegations of harassment and assault received, neither Marrongelle nor Naeher could offer specific numbers, though Naeher said she would provide them later.

“I guess my concern is if you guys are coming to testify in front of Congress about a severe problem in something that is a culture issue, you should have those numbers at your hip right now,” Garcia reprimanded. He said he had been well aware of such numbers when he confronted similar problems during his career in the Navy and as an executive at contractor Raytheon.

In a written statement submitted in January, Leidos reported it had “received five allegations of sexual harassment and zero allegations of sexual assault” between May 2017 and April 2022.

Lucas and Lofgren’s letter calls the claim about the number of assault reports “untrue,” pointing to an email chain the committee obtained in which a Leidos employee discusses an assault report received in 2020 about an incident that, according to Naeher, occurred before Leidos’ contract began in 2016.

The journal Science also reported in April it had spoken with USAP employees who experienced or knew of reported incidents of sexual violence in Antarctica in recent years, contradicting Leidos’ claims. Some further said Leidos downplayed assaults as harassment and retaliated against employees who filed reports, including by firing station manager Julie Grundberg, who had advocated on their behalf. NSF’s report on the situation likewise conveyed evidence of retaliation.

Lucas and Lofgren’s letter further accuses Leidos of telling some employees and subcontractors that participating in interviews with NSF’s Office of Inspector General is voluntary. “Anything short of clear instruction to employees and subcontractors to cooperate with the OIG is unacceptable,” the letter reads, demanding evidence the company has provided such instruction.

The letter requires a response from Leidos by the end of this week.

NSF continues to bolster reporting and response capabilities

Marrongelle’s presentation to the National Science Board this week showcased several steps the SAHPR task force has taken, particularly in making it easier for USAP staff to report sexual misconduct.

She said SAHPR launched a helpline on April 10 that provides counseling and guidance on incident reporting and that the SAHPR program office now has an incident review team that monitors every report it receives. These activities supplement other points of contact, which she said include a victim advocate, counselor, marshal, and chaplain.

Responding to a question from the board, Marrongelle said the SAHPR program office has received 33 allegations of sexual misconduct. Contacted by FYI, an NSF spokesperson stated that these include reports received from individuals, program officials, and Leidos since the office’s establishment on Oct. 1, 2022.

Marrongelle further remarked, “A major challenge that we’ve had to manage is the multi-jurisdictional nature of the USAP program.” The program is managed by NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, but its science and support operations involve employees from other science agencies, the military, and numerous universities and private companies, complicating lines of authority.

To coordinate responses to reports, Marrongelle said SAHPR intends to implement a USAP-wide “accountability framework” that will involve federal, academic, and contractor stakeholders. She said the SAHPR program office has already established points of contact with all federal and military partners for reporting and monitoring incidents and that those connections have been used.

In addition, Marrongelle said that SAHPR has enhanced standards for sexual assault reporting and prevention for contractors and that it plans to work with academic partners to modify the terms of grant awards to support these efforts. It will also deploy new training resources for staff and conduct a climate survey this summer to gain a clearer picture of the problems it faces.

Beyond that, Marrongelle said future efforts will involve expanding SAHPR activities such as the helpline and climate survey to other NSF programs, remarking, “The intent of this office was always to go beyond the USAP community and really touch all field sites where scientific work is conducted.” She also indicated that NSF is working with other federal agencies and international organizations to establish best practices.

Attention to violence at remote work sites growing

NSF created its SAHPR program in 2021 as an extension of sexual assault and harassment policies it implemented in 2018 requiring institutions receiving research grants to report when they had taken action against grant-funded investigators. Those policies received congressional backing last year through provisions the Science Committee developed for the CHIPS and Science Act.

As Congress and federal agencies have focused on sexual harassment in STEM fields generally, harassment and assault at remote field sites have become a particular concern due to the severity of the problem in such environments and the difficulty of enforcement.

In Antarctica, an informal group of USAP employees known as Ice Allies has advocated for action since 2019, saying it is a deeply entrenched problem there. Employees and contractors of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have faced similar problems, particularly at sea. Members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee have sought to advance NOAA-specific legislation for years and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), a senior member of the Science Committee, reintroduced legislation on the subject on April 28.

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