An Update on Implementing ACD Recommendations on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment

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In our continued effort to address sexual harassment, the NIH has implemented some of the recommendations of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) Working Group on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment. I recently presented to the ACD an update on our work, and want to share some highlights with you. Over the last couple of years, the NIH has taken a number of steps, including:

  • Developing and publishing our processes for handling allegations of sexual harassment at NIH-funded institutions. As part of this process, our Extramural Integrity Team reviews all allegations of professional misconduct, which includes sexual harassment, in a manner similar to its review of allegations of research misconduct.
  • Making available a web-based form and an email address for anyone to use to inform NIH of harassment. We recently added a telephone number for reporting allegations.
  • Issuing a notice and related blog announcing our expectation that grant recipients who request changes in the principal investigator, key personnel, or recipient institution notify us if these requests are related to concerns about safety and/or work environments, including issues related to sexual harassment, bullying and other hostile working conditions.

During the ACD meeting, we presented data on our casework to date (see Table 1). People are reaching out to us to share their concerns. We receive notifications from a range of individuals, including targets of harassment, colleagues or bystanders, and institutional officials. While the majority of our case intake is for sexual harassment, other forms of professional misconduct are commonly reported, such as bullying or general harassment. We expect to receive at least as many case reports, perhaps more, in 2021 than we did for 2019 and 2020. Thus far in 2021, we have seen an uptick in the number of reports of racial discrimination compared to previous years.

Table 1

Case Intake Since 2018

Characteristic / CY 2018 2019 2020 2021
Total N (%) 31 (9.9) 107 (34.1) 106 (33.8) 70 (22.3)
Sexual Harassment 28 (90.3) 91 (85.0) 55 (51.9) 41 (58.6)
Other Harassment 2 (6.5) 7 (6.5) 22 (20.8) 20 (28.6)
Bullying 1 (3.2) 14 (13.1) 26 (24.5) 5 (7.1)
Racial Discrimination 1 (3.2) 9 (8.4) 9 (8.5) 16 (22.9)
Media Publicity 18 (58.1) 21 (19.6) 17 (16.0) 26 (37.1)
Institution Self-Disclosure 2 (6.5) 8 (7.5) 16 (15.1) 5 (7.1)

Values are N (%)

2021 values through April 30

Where percentage total greater than 100, cases involve more than one concern

The data also show how harassment cases were resolved while working with the recipient institution (Table 2). In a substantial number of cases, principal investigators were removed from grants or other substantive grant or safety actions were taken. We also chose to remove a number of individuals from peer review.

These and other actions follow our process for handling allegations of harassment. When we receive a notification, we send a letter to the institution requesting information about the allegation in the context of NIH-funded research. If the institution determines that an allegation is substantiated, we will work with the institution on appropriate actions, including but not limited to removing the principal investigator from the grant, holding pending awards associated with the principal investigator of concern while compliance issues are resolved, declining to approve requests to transfer grants involving the principal investigator to another institution, requiring special reporting requirements from the institution, or removing the individual from NIH peer review service.

We presented real-life scenarios presented during the ACD meeting to help put the data into perspective. Have a look at the cases.

Table 2

Finding / Outcome Sexual Harassment Only Other
Total N (%) 192 (61.1) 122 (38.9)
Letter to Institution 131 (68.2) 95 (77.9)
Formal Investigation 111 (57.8) 50 (41.0)
Title IX Referral 46 (24.0) 20 (16.4)
Allegation Substantiated 48 (25.0) 23 (18.9)
PI Removed 54 (28.1) 21 (17.2)
Other Grant Actions 22 (11.5) 5 (4.1)
Safety Actions 32 (16.7) 26 (21.3)
Left Institution 50 (26.0) 11 (9.0)
Removed from Peer Review 87 (45.3) 38 (31.1)
Closed or Resolved 163 (84.9) 105 (86.1)

Addressing sexual harassment is part of the NIH’s wider effort to promote and ensure safe, respectful, diverse, and inclusive work environments at recipient institutions. Responding to this broader effort and largely stemming from the ACD recommendations, the NIH has also implemented several strategies, including:

  • Publishing NIH Guide Notice NOT-OD-21-053 that provides updated guidelines for enhancing diversity and creating safe environments in NIH-supported conferences, which we blogged about earlier this year.
  • Launching the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health challenge prize competition to enhance gender diversity in academia, possibly awarding up to 10 prizes of $50,000 each. This prize acknowledges and recognizes transformative approaches, systems, projects, programs, and processes that have successfully enhanced and sustained gender diversity within an institution.
  • Establishing an agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights for information sharing to facilitate case handling.
  • Soliciting research on procedures and policies that model and promote a positive climate that cultivates respect, civility, and safety and taking action to advance this effort, such as publishing Notice of Special Interest NOT-OD-21-068, announcing the support of research in areas such as:
    • educating the research community about what sexual harassment is
    • interventions and policies that model and promote a positive climate
    • interventions to reduce risk factors for sexual harassment

Together with the biomedical research community, we are working on creating a scientific culture that fosters safety and inclusivity. Please continue to join our efforts as we further engage with our federal partners, team with our NIH-supported institutions, and unite with the scientific community at large to, at every opportunity, reinforce that sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviors are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

 

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for clarifying the process for the community at large! This is very helpful. It would help the targets of harassment and bullying to receive this sort of information from the NIH at they time that they report it. Currently, the automated email reply that is sent is not informative.

  2. While I’m very glad to see NIH taking these steps to address harassment in STEM, it’s more than a little disappointing that the budget caps on the research solicitations are only *HALF* those of a standard R01 ($250,000/yr directs vs. $500,000/yr directs). Why are the caps set so low?

    1. The $250k cap was put in place when the program was established because historically budgets at that level or below were sufficient to support research on interventions to promote biomedical career advancement. However, we recognize that there may be larger scale studies that would require higher budgets and thus we will explore the possibility of raising this ceiling.

      1. Thank you for this response, and please know that, yes, there are larger scale studies that can (and should) be conducted in this arena that would require full R01 scale funding. Very glad to learn that NIH is open to revisiting this decision.

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