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More than 70 lab heads removed from NIH grants after harassment findings

Since early 2018, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has received more than 300 complaints of sexual and other harassment and approved removing 75 principal investigators (PIs) from grants as a result, the agency reported this week. That’s the eye-opening result of an update NIH provided on its efforts to address professional misconduct by agency-funded investigators.

About two-thirds of the complaints involved sexual harassment allegations; 54 PIs were removed as a result. Before 2018, a PI had never been stripped of a grant for that reason, but in response to the #MeTooSTEM movement, NIH began to encourage sexual harassment victims to file complaints.

The agency’s Office of Extramural Research (OER) also looks into other forms of professional misconduct—including bullying and racial discrimination, which have recently made up a greater share of the complaints (see first table, below), OER Deputy Director Michael Lauer says. He presented the data on the 314 total complaints on 10 June at a meeting of NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD), noting that some cases involve a combination of these concerns. 

The accused scientist’s institution investigated and validated the claims in about 29% of the 163 resolved cases involving sexual harassment alone, and in 22% of “other” complaints, NIH found. (In sexual harassment cases, that often means the institution conducted a Title IX investigation; for discrimination, it might be an investigation by a diversity and inclusion or human resources office, Lauer says.) That substantiation rate is roughly comparable to the 20% of complaints that were validated within NIH’s in-house research program, Lauer noted at the meeting.

Harassment complaints received by NIH

*Through 30 April; some complaints include more than one type of harassment

Total number3110710670
Sexual harassment28915541
Other harassment272220
Racial discrimination19916

Outcome of cases closed or resolved by NIH

*Includes sexual harassment cases that also involve other types of complaints

Sexual harassmentOther harassment*
Total cases resolved163105
Letter of inquiry sent to institution 13195
Allegation substantiated by institution 4823
Principal investigator removed 5421
Principal investigator left institution 5011
Scientist removed from peer review8738

Validating less than one-third of complaints may seem low, but isn’t, given the nature of such investigations, says Alexandra Tracy-Ramirez, an attorney in Colorado with experience in gender discrimination. Some cases don’t result in findings because the behavior did not meet the “severe or pervasive” harassment standard required, Lauer said in an interview with ScienceInsider. In other cases, victims decide to drop the complaint, or complaints don’t hold up. Lauer said he recently reviewed a case in which a female faculty member claimed she did not get a promotion because of gender discrimination. But the university documented to NIH that she had not met academic standards for the new position.

When a university’s investigations result in findings or a settlement, NIH then works with the institution to “remove [the scientist] from the NIH ecosystem” to maintain a safe workplace, Lauer said. With approval from NIH, institutions removed 75 PIs from grants, and 61 PIs left their institutions.

A larger number of NIH-funded scientists, 125, have been barred from serving as peer reviewers for grants. To avoid bias in peer review, the agency sometimes removes reviewers before an investigation is complete, Lauer explains. “If it turns out that everything is fine, then we can restore the ability to invite them for peer review,” Lauer told the ACD.

With reporting by Mennatalla Ibrahim.

*Clarification, 14 June, 12:25 p.m.: This story has been edited to indicate that in response to some harassment findings, it is the principal investigator’s institution, not NIH, that has removed the PI from a grant with approval from NIH.