Several months ago, we learned in the press that an NIH-supported investigator was banned from his university campus pending an ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct. The institution, which was the recipient of the awards in which this investigator was designated as principal investigator (PI), had not informed us of this situation. Once aware, we contacted senior institutional officials to discuss the need to ensure the effective stewardship of the award under these circumstances. We requested that the institution provide us with alternative plans for conducting the research given that this individual would no longer serve as PI and would have no other involvement in the NIH-funded research, and we reminded them (as we recently reminded the community and as reiterated below) that they are responsible for notifying NIH of any change in status that might affect the ability of an individual identified as key personnel to conduct NIH-supported research.
NIH takes sexual and gender harassment seriously. When harassment occurs, not only is it a personal violation, it can cause lasting damage to an individual’s professional development and training.
Unfortunately, sexual misconduct in the research setting is not uncommon. Too many people have described unacceptable experiences during the conduct of their scientific work. In a 2016 JAMA article, as an example, nearly one-third of women investigators on K08 and K23 career development awards reported experiencing sexist remarks or behavior, subtle bribery to engage in sexual behavior, unwanted or coercive advances, or threats.
In Nature that same year, my colleagues and I raised our concerns too. We highlighted an NIH Guide Notice, published in September 2015, reminding grantees of civil rights protections in NIH-supported activities and of our expectations for eliminating barriers and providing equal access to the opportunity to participate in NIH supported research, programs, conferences, and other activities. Consistent with Federal civil rights laws, organizers of NIH-supported conferences and scientific meetings are expected to maintain a safe and respectful environment for all attendees free from discrimination and harassment, sexual or otherwise.
In a National Academies study released in June, one fifth of women undergraduate and graduate students reported being harassed. This ranged from unwanted sexual attention, coercion, verbal or physical harassment, and offensive remarks about one’s sex or gender. Medical students also reported a strikingly high level of harassment, which may have origins stemming in part from the hierarchical nature and environment found in some of these schools and training programs.
At the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director meeting in June (go to 4 hours and 34 minutes in the recording), we discussed these reports, clarified NIH policies, and highlighted actions we are taking to address sexual and gender harassment both on our campus and in the extramural research community.
The NIH Grants Policy Statement (GPS), which is a term and condition of all awards, indicates that NIH intends to uphold “high ethical, health, and safety standards in both the conduct of the research we fund and the expenditure of public funds by our recipients” including adherence to civil rights assurances. For NIH-funded extramural science, the grant recipient, which nearly always is an institution, not a person, “is responsible for the actions of its employees and other research collaborators, including third parties involved in the project.” Thus, NIH expects that “recipient organizations have systems, policies, and procedures in place by which they manage funds and activities.” Further, “NIH recipients are expected to foster work environments conducive to high-quality research.”
The GPS states that failure to comply with the terms and conditions of award “may cause NIH to take one or more actions, depending on the severity and duration of noncompliance.” For example, NIH “may withdraw approval of the program director/principal investigator (PD/PI) or other senior/key personnel specifically referenced in the Notice of Award if a reasonable basis exists to conclude that the PD/PI and other such named senior/key personnel are no longer qualified or competent to perform the research objectives.” If a grantee takes administrative or disciplinary action against its employee(s) – for example, limiting access to the institution’s facilities or resources or modifying employment or leave status, etc. during an investigation of alleged sexual misconduct – that impacts the ability of the employee(s) to continue as “senior/key personnel” on an NIH award, NIH requires the grantee to notify NIH and seek NIH’s advance approval for replacement(s) of PD/PIs and senior/key personnel.
Also, as a term and condition of the award, the grantee certifies that it has on file with the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) an Assurance of Compliance with the statutes described in the “Civil Rights Protections” provision at Subsection 4.1.2 of the NIH GPS. OCR, which is responsible for enforcing federal civil rights laws (among other laws), provides resources to agencies and to grantees, to address concerns regarding potential violations.
We will continue to partner with our grantees to actively address sexual and gender harassment in extramural research. As such, we also invite the community to consider the concrete actions that NIH is taking on our campus with our employees. In December 2017, NIH Director, Dr. Francis Collins, outlined NIH’s stance on this issue, provided resources for our employees, and highlighted future actions to be implemented. We will be improving our Civil Program’s process to better investigate and address allegations; providing information and resources in the NIH Manual to help eliminate workplace harassment; as well as encouraging staff to utilize the confidential consultation and short-term counseling, referral, and follow-up services through the Employment Assistance Program to enhance personal and professional well-being. A survey will also be administered to obtain baseline metrics of workplace interactions and effects of harassment. The findings will be used to effect change here at NIH. These steps will help us maintain a safe and civil organizational culture free from all forms of discrimination.
All people, regardless of their sex or gender, deserve to be valued and respected in their everyday personal and professional lives. NIH is, and will continue to be, committed to the well-being of all of those involved in our supported research endeavors. This conversation will continue here at NIH, because if new advances in public health are to be made, then they should be made by individuals working in a safe and productive environment conducive to learning, exploration, and engagement, while being free from harassment and harm.
For additional information, please see:
- NIH Office of Extramural Research Anti-Sexual Harassment webpage
- NIH Anti-Sexual Harassment website
- NIH Director’s Statements
- Changing the Culture of Science to End Sexual Harassment (September 17, 2018)
- Additional Information on Sexual Harassment Policy at NIH (September 19, 2018)
As stated in NOT-OD-15-152, individuals with questions, concerns or complaints related to any of the civil rights laws are encouraged to contact OCR. In addition, recipient institutions or organizations may have a designated official who is responsible for assisting individuals with civil rights concerns or questions and resources.