Lydia Polimeni/National Institutes of Health

National Institutes of Health apologizes for lack of action on sexual harassers

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, today responded to ongoing criticism of how the agency handles sexual harassment by NIH-funded investigators by issuing an apology. In a lengthy statement from NIH leaders, replete with language unusually contrite and passionate for a federal agency, NIH says it “has been part of the problem” and vows to take new steps, but does not list any immediate policy changes.  

The agency also released data on actions it has recently taken against individuals found guilty of sexual harassment, which in 2018 included removing 14 principal investigators (PIs) from grants.

The statement begins by quoting a September 2018 missive from NIH Director Francis Collins calling sexual harassment “morally indefensible,” but goes further by expressing new concerns about reports shared by the #MeTooSTEM movement. They “portray a heartbreaking story of opportunities lost, pain suffered, and a systemic failure to protect and defend. To all those who have endured these experiences, we are sorry that it has taken so long to acknowledge and address the climate and culture that has caused such harm,” the statement says. It continues: “We are concerned that NIH has been part of the problem. We are determined to become part of the solution.”

The statement notes that this month, a working group of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) formed to discuss sexual harassment met for the first time and heard from neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin, a #MeTooSTEM activist who is now involved in a high-profile employment dispute with Vanderbilt University in Nashville. An agency committee reviewing sexual harassment policies within NIH’s intramural program has “heard similar, harrowing accounts,” the statement says. It is “abundantly clear that NIH needs to do better” in dealing with sexual harassment.

NIH has come under fire because, unlike the National Science Foundation (NSF), it has not made any formal policy changes specific to sexual harassment. In September 2018, NSF issued new guidance requiring that it be notified within 10 business days when the PI on a grant has been found guilty of sexual harassment or has been put on administrative leave; the agency can then choose to remove the investigator from the grant. NIH, too, requires notification when a PI is removed from their position or put on leave (and can then remove the investigator from the award), but does not ask why the investigator’s status has changed. NIH officials have said legal constraints prevent them from following NSF’s lead.

In today’s statement, the agency emphasizes that it has taken action against harassers. Last year, NIH “followed up on” sexual harassment issues at more than 24 institutions and replaced 14 PIs on grants; it also barred 14 individuals from serving as peer reviewers. NIH also notes that institutions took actions against 21 principal investigators including removing some from their positions. “We recognize these numbers seem small compared to the disheartening incidence of sexual harassment described in [a] recent National Academies [of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine] report, but we are continuing to expand our outreach to the extramural community to bring these concerns to our attention,” the agency says.

Within its intramural program, NIH in 2018 began inquiries into 35 sexual harassment allegations involving staff or contractors. So far, 20 staff members have been disciplined, half with informal actions including training, and cease and desist warnings, and 10 others with formal actions such as termination of employment.

NIH says that after hearing from the working group, the agency now realizes it needs to clarify in its guidance the timeline and reporting requirements that institutions must follow in notifying NIH if an investigator or other grant personnel cannot continue their work because of a sexual harassment investigation or findings. The agency is also working on “additional channels” for individuals to share harassment concerns and released a new email address for reporting them (GranteeHarassment@od.nih.gov). And the agency promises “listening sessions” as part of developing recommendations that the working group and NIH staff will deliver to the ACD at its next meetings in June and December.

McLaughlin says the statement reflects a request she made to Collins to apologize to victims as a first step: “We can’t form an action committee before we apologize,” she says. But she thinks NIH should not just move a grant to another PI—often a colleague of the sexual harasser—but “has to start taking that money back from universities.” She thinks it should go into a fund for victims, an idea she is discussing with Collins. “I respect this apology. Let’s get to work,” she says.