The co-chairs of the National Institutes of Health’s working group on sexual harassment were (left to right) Kristina Johnson, chancellor of the State University of New York; Francis Cuss, retired executive vice president and chief scientific officer at Bristol-Myers Squibb; and Carrie Wolinetz, acting chief of staff and associate director for science policy at NIH.

National Institutes of Health

NIH director pledges to move quickly on recommendations to stop sexual harassment

An advisory group yesterday issued a sweeping set of recommendations to crack down on sexual harassment in labs funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The panel’s advice included mandating that NIH-funded institutions report confirmed harassers to NIH as well as broad changes aimed at changing the culture of biomedical science to make it less dominated by white men.

NIH Director Francis Collins said he was “supportive of these solid recommendations” and would move immediately to follow up on several of them. “NIH will make every effort to adhere to the vision of the working group,” he said in a statement following the report’s release. However, Collins said NIH does not have the legal authority to take some key steps, such as the reporting requirement.

Still, observers welcomed the report from a 21-member working group that included NIH officials, NIH-funded researchers, and victims of sexual harassment. “I really appreciate your attention to these issues,” neuroscientist and #MeTooSTEM movement leader BethAnn McLaughlin, formerly of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, told the panel, calling its report “awesome.”

Collins created the working group to report to NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director in February after several high-profile sexual harassment cases involving federally funded investigators. Following advice from a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) panel that sexual misconduct be treated “as seriously as research misconduct,” the report lays out “mechanisms for reporting, investigating, and adjudicating” sexual harassment as well as other types of professional misconduct such as bullying and gender discrimination.

Some of those steps refine interim recommendations released by the working group in June. For example, the report now says NIH should require institutions to notify the agency within 2 weeks when a principal investigator (PI) or other key grant personnel is found guilty of sexual misconduct. And when a PI is put on leave because of an investigation, their institution should tell NIH the reason for the PI’s change in status.

In addition, PIs and other key personnel should check a box on grant applications and annual progress reports to attest that there have been no sexual harassment findings against them within a time period that NIH has yet to determine. If there have been such findings, NIH should review them and decide whether the person is still eligible for funding. Confirmed harassers should also be barred from serving on NIH advisory councils and study sections.

NIH should provide “restorative justice” for the victims of sexual harassers in the form of bridge funding and special awards to resume their careers. The report includes dozens of other recommendations for NIH, scientific societies, and institutions—including requiring that NIH-funded meetings advertise hotlines for reporting abuse, that NIH restructure awards to give trainees independence from investigators, and that it survey all staff on every NIH grant about their workforce climate.

NIH should also work toward reducing the concentration of funding among straight white male investigators, because, as the NASEM report noted, this contributes to the risk of sexual harassment by creating “hierarchical work environments.” That shift could be done in many ways, from working to reduce bias in peer review to rewarding institutions that support diversity.

Collins said NIH will soon release a standard procedure it will follow when it receives an allegation of sexual misconduct from an institution or individual. And NIH already has a hotline and web form for submitting harassment complaints. Since January, the agency has received 105 inquiries (compared with 28 in 2018), removed 12 PIs from grants, and barred 55 from peer review.

But Collins said NIH’s legal advisers say the agency may need to go through a formal policymaking process to pursue other recommendations, such as requiring that grant personnel go through training to prevent sexual harassment. Even mandating the checkbox on grant proposals is a policy change that NIH may lack the authority to carry out without steps such as issuing a proposed rule and collecting public comment, he said.

NIH Associate Director for Science Policy Carrie Wolinetz said that although NIH knew about these legal limitations, “it’s helpful having an external group saying this is something the agency should do” so that NIH can make the case for expanding its authority. “In the meantime, we’re going to see how close we can get with the authorities that we have.” 

Working group member Carol Greider, a biologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, says treating harassment with same rigor as scientific fraud is a key thrust of the report: “Institutions have paid attention to research misconduct because NIH has tied dollars and funding to it. That is a really big, important point and there need to be established, clear processes,” she says.

Outsiders praised the report. “It’s a very comprehensive document, which clearly they spent a lot of time on. It really addresses sexual harassment at all levels, from institutional leadership to protecting the safety and careers of targets of harassment,” says Heather Pierce, senior director of science policy for the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C.

Several scientists attending the meeting, including McLaughlin, who now heads the #MeTooSTEM advocacy organization, urged NIH to move quickly to provide resources to victims of harassment. “People need help now,” said Eunice Neeley, a physician and researcher who says that as a result of sexual harassment at her former institution, she is now unemployed and has no health insurance.