Francis Collins

National Institutes of Health

NIH director expresses concern but offers no new policy on sexual harassment for grantees

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins in Bethesda, Maryland, yesterday ended a monthslong silence on the topic of sexual harassment in biomedical research, announcing plans to beef up procedures in NIH’s own laboratories. But the agency did not reveal any new policies to sanction NIH-funded investigators who commit sexual harassment at universities, a step that some researchers and some members of Congress would like him to take.

Sexual harassment is “morally indefensible” and “unacceptable,” Collins said in a written statement. “Personally, I find this to be a matter of extreme importance,” he added in a follow-up interview with ScienceInsider. But he says the agency’s hands are tied because of “legal reasons.” In particular, Collins says the agency can’t move quickly to require that institutions report sexual harassment findings to the agency, as the National Science Foundation (NSF) plans to do. 

Collins’s comments come after several high-profile cases of sexual harassment in academic science. The incidents have inspired new policies by scientific organizations, including AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider), which this week announced a new process for revoking fellow status for those found guilty of sexual or other misconduct. Tomorrow, NSF is expected to finalize a policy issued earlier this year that would require universities to tell NSF once they have completed an investigation into allegations of harassment by an NSF grantee and whenever they place a grantee on administrative leave. (ScienceInsider's report on the NSF policy can be found here.) 

NIH’s main lever for preventing sexual harassment, according to the agency, is a provision of a 1972 education law, called Title IX, that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender by any educational institution receiving federal funds. In abiding by those provisions, Collins said, universities are required to take steps to ensure “a harassment-free environment.”

NIH also requires that institutions report whether an NIH-funded grantee has been put on administrative leave or removed from their position for any reason. If NIH is not satisfied with the university’s subsequent decision to replace the grantee, the statement explains, “we then have the option to suspend or terminate the grant.” The proposed NSF policy also noted that the agency could take “unilateral action [including] suspension or termination of the award,” but NSF has since clarified that this may not necessarily mean an investigator found guilty of sexual harassment will be removed as principal investigator of a grant.

Collins says NIH can’t automatically cut off funding to individual grantees accused of or found guilty of sexual harassment because the funding goes to the institution. Transferring a grant instead of ending it can be preferable to “preserve the science,” NIH notes, and to allow other staff, including possibly even the person who was harassed, to continue with their research.

Last month, Senator Patty Murray (D–WA) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D–CT) criticized NIH’s approach to sexual harassment. In a 6 August letter to Collins, the lawmakers wrote that “the agency has largely failed to take steps to hold its awardee institutions accountable for fostering safe workplace environments regarding sexual harassment.” On 31 August NIH acknowledged that the agency has not sanctioned any institutions for failing to certify that they will comply with the civil rights policies.

Its response to Murray and DeLauro also revealed that NIH has spent $2 million over the past 5 years on dozens of settlements involving cases of sexual harassment. (These incidents presumably occurred in NIH’s intramural program, although the letter does not specify that.) NIH’s plans for its intramural program announced yesterday include an updated policy on sexual harassment, a simpler reporting process and plans for a survey.

Collins told ScienceInsider that no scientist has been suspended or barred from receiving NIH funding because of sexual harassment. NIH can refer allegations involving grantees to the Inspector General (IG) for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH's parent agency. But Collins said that office is overwhelmed with Medicare fraud and other wrongdoing and doesn’t have the “bandwidth” to deal with NIH matters. The agency wants Congress to shift $5 million from its pending 2019 budget to the IG to help it pursue such cases and other transgressions, such as breaches of peer review and intellectual property theft.

Requiring institutions to report sexual harassment findings to NIH would be a first step toward better oversight. But NIH can’t immediately follow NSF’s example, as Collins explained in a second statement released on 19 September. Unlike the standalone NSF, NIH—as part of HHS—must follow the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires a formal rulemaking process to make such a policy change. “That is why at the moment, we’re not in sync,” Collins says. Such a rulemaking, which involves the White House Office of Management and Budget, would take at least a year and “can readily get snagged along the way,” he adds.

Asked why NIH can’t go ahead with such a rulemaking, Collins said, “We are actively exploring that possibility.” He also expects to discuss a new rule that would cover all research agencies as part of a plan work with NSF director France Córdova on harmonizing policies. 

Collins’s initial statement has gotten a mixed reception. “I don’t want to see the man found guilty of viciously retaliating against me at a national meeting with new trainees,” says neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, who is circulating an online petition that calls on NIH to take away training, travel and grant money, and study section services from any investigator found guilty of sexual misconduct. “It terrifies me.”

Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Rockville, Maryland, says, “I think the community is looking for more, and rightly so.” He noted that the society recently sent a comment to one of NIH’s institutes calling for new policies. “I recognize it’s complicated for the NIH to work through,” he adds.

Tracy Costello, chair of the National Postdoctoral Association, was more positive about yesterday’s statement. “I think NIH is moving in the right direction. … I think it’s a very complicated problem and I don’t know that there’s one quick answer,” says Costello, whose group is worried that a federal agency might take punitive action before an institution completes its investigation.

Murray is also waiting to see what happens next. “I’m encouraged that [NIH] has acknowledged that it needs to do more, but we know the devil is in the details,” she told ScienceInsider. “So I’ll be watching closely to make sure they take serious action that has a real impact.”

*Update, 20 September, 3:25 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the description of the legal restrictions on NIH policymaking and to include a statement NIH released on 19 September.