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Noni Byrnes leads the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Scientific Review in Bethesda, Maryland.

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NIH may bar peer reviewers accused of sexual harassment

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, reminded the research community this week that the agency can—and sometimes does—bar scientists accused of sexual harassment from serving as peer reviewers. The bar is lower than the standard to remove an investigator from a grant, say NIH officials, because of their concern about “the integrity of the process.”

Noni Byrnes, the newly appointed director of NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR), explained in a 25 March blog post that allegations of sexual harassment could bias a reviewer’s score for a research proposal even if they are ultimately found to be innocent. For example, a male reviewer accused of harassing female postdocs could give better scores to proposals from female postdocs to avoid appearing biased, even if the science didn’t deserve that score. The allegations could come not only from institutions conducting an investigation, but also from victims or “observers.”

NIH “can exercise our discretion to exclude” such individuals from its pool of 18,000 reviewers, Byrnes explained. Such a step “is not meant to be punitive, or to imply guilt on the part of the accused,” Byrnes writes. “It is intended simply to protect the integrity of our scientific review process.”

The policy is not new, Byrnes told ScienceInsider. NIH has routinely declined to use some potential reviewers for reasons that range from a conflict of interest to the simple fact that a person is chronically late turning in reviews.

Byrnes writes that her blog post comes at a time when the agency is receiving a rising number of sexual harassment complaints. And that increased volume has meant the issue is more likely to be on the minds of reviewers, she says.

“Especially if some [allegation] got out in the press, everyone around the table knows, the applicant pool knows, the person is listed on our roster,” Byrnes explains. “To me, that compromises the strength and rigor of our process. Why not defer it until everything gets resolved?” And, she adds, “If we find out there’s no issue and they’re innocent, we will invite them back and that person is back in and one of the 18,000.”

An allegation could come to one of CSR’s scientific review officers or through a recently announced NIH email address for reporting sexual harassment involving NIH-funded research that triggers NIH to contact the accused’s institution about the allegations. CSR would confer with NIH’s Office of Extramural Research before deciding to bar a reviewer, she adds. But the decision can happen “quickly, especially if it’s somebody who’s scheduled to serve.”

Byrnes declined to give a number of peer reviewers who have been removed because of sexual harassment allegations or findings. But she noted that NIH Director Francis Collins recently said that 14 principal investigators have been barred from serving as peer reviewers because of sexual harassment concerns raised in 2018.

NIH’s policy for researchers involved in sexual harassment specifies that a principal investigator can lose a grant only after being put on leave or removed by their institution for any reason. The argument is different for peer review, says Byrnes, because “the integrity of the process is a prime driver.” And unlike losing grant funding, “Not attending a [study section] meeting in October is not going to kill [an investigator’s] lab.”

The move drew praise on Twitter from many scientists, who interpreted it as a new policy. They gave credit to #MeTooSTEM activist BethAnn McLaughlin, who mentions a ban on peer-review service on her list of four actions that she thinks Collins should take against sexual harassers. “I kind of agree with her,” Byrnes says.