Read our COVID-19 research and news.

The National Institutes of Health revised its policies in order to be more aware of any sexual harassment findings against researchers it funds.

National Institutes of Health

NIH strengthens policies to alert agency to sexual harassment by grantees

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is tightening grant rules that until now have sometimes left the agency in the dark about sexual harassment cases involving researchers it supports. Starting tomorrow with new awards, NIH will require institutions it funds to report to the agency when an investigator is removed from a grant because of harassment findings or allegations.

NIH also wants to know when an investigator is moving their grant to another institution because of sexual harassment findings or concerns, Director Francis Collins and other officials announced in an editorial in Science today. Along with other new policies, the changes will “further foster a culture whereby sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviors are not tolerated in the research and training environment,” the NIH officials write.

Together, the new reporting requirements will “close two important gaps” in the agency’s policies, says NIH Associate Director for Science Policy Carrie Wolinetz, and should prevent cases in which institutions “pass the harasser” without the agency’s knowledge.

The changes put the NIH closer—but still not on the same level—as the National Science Foundation (NSF). That agency requires institutions to report sexual misconduct findings even if there’s no change in an investigator’s grant status. NIH has said it doesn’t have the legal authority to adopt that policy.

Still, “I’m very pleased. It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” says Johns Hopkins University biologist Carol Greider, a member of a working group that in December 2019 advised NIH to make today’s policy changes.

Scientists can step down from their grant for a range of reasons including medical leave, a job change, or a misconduct investigation. Institutions must report such changes in status, but until now, NIH did not ask why. The agency has said it did not have the legal authority to ask.

But after “many conversations” with legal experts, Wolinetz says, the agency realized it could fold harassment into grant rules that require “safe and healthful working conditions.” That's usually been limited to things like chemical safety. But a notice says any request to NIH to change the grant’s key personnel should “mention as to whether change(s) … is related to concerns about safety and/or work environments (e.g. due to concerns about harassment, bullying, retaliation, or hostile working conditions).”

If an institution reports allegations or findings of harassment, NIH staff will review the information and decide, for example, whether the grant should end or be transferred, and whether the investigator should remain eligible for NIH funding. If a grantee is moving to a new institution because of harassment findings, the agency plans to inform the new institution about the investigator’s record.

The policy doesn’t go as far as NSF’s, which requires that the agency be notified within 10 days of sexual harassment findings or when the institution takes an administrative action, such as putting an investigator on leave because of harassment allegations. (NIH’s new reporting requirements merely say NIH should be informed “promptly.”) Although the working group recommended such a direct reporting requirement—and it is part of draft legislation in Congress creating a governmentwide policy—doing so now would require NIH to go through lengthy formal policymaking steps, Wolinetz says. The new policy changes “will hopefully capture the vast majority of cases,” she says. “This gets us nearly all the way there.”

Greider worries, however, that there may still be loopholes. For example, an investigator found guilty of harassment could transfer their grant to a colleague, then move to a new institution and apply for a new grant. “How would the new institution know” about the earlier misconduct, she asks.

Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen, another working group member, agrees with Greider that NIH still has work to do to encourage institutions to create a safe lab culture. The new policy “is a necessary first step in a much longer journey,” she says.

And BethAnn McLaughlin, a leader of the #MeTooSTEM movement, thinks NIH should go further by making public how it responds to cases of sexual harassment by grantees. “I don’t have a lot of good faith in a process where some closed door NIH people are making decisions,” she says.

Both NIH and NSF have tightened their policies in response to a series of prominent sexual harassment cases that the agencies only learned about from media reports even though it was funding the alleged harassers. NIH has already beefed up its processes, for instance by creating a web form for victims to report sexual harassment allegations to the agency. Since the start of 2019, the agency has learned of 142 harassment cases and removed 14 investigators from grants, Wolinetz will report tomorrow to NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director.