Strengthening Efforts to End Harassment and Discrimination at NIH-Supported Conferences

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A year ago, we began requiring plans to enhance and strengthen diversity in applications seeking funding for scientific conferences and meetings. Our guide notice NOT-OD-21-053 reiterated the long-standing expectation that recipients maintain a safe and respectful environment, free from harassment and discrimination. Building on these efforts, we are now asking recipients to proactively show how they will address safety and harassment.

Conferences, unfortunately, may present increased risks for harassment compared to campus environments.  Increased harassment risks at off-campus events have been linked to a lack of awareness regarding codes of conduct, unavailability of reporting mechanisms, and power imbalances among attendees (see this 2019 report from the National Academies). The same standards and expectations of behavior must be upheld at meetings, conferences, and other off-campus environments to allow all individuals to fully participate and feel comfortable in exchanging their scientific ideas.

As a funder and organizer of scientific conferences, NIH is in a position to enable culture change at conferences. Following recommendations from the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (see #1.7 in their 2019 report), all NIH R13/U13 conference grant applicants that are recommended for funding must submit a pre-award Plan to Promote Safe Environments (NOT-OD-22-074). Conference organizers are required to describe strategies that communicate “safety plans” to attendees, to describe how they will document allegations and resulting actions, and to describe information on steps to ensure a safe and respectful environment. These requirements are effective for R13/U13 applications submitted for the April 12, 2022 receipt date and beyond. And, as we feel strongly in these principles to promote culture change, we at NIH are planning to implement similar strategies to bolster safety at conferences and meetings that we organize.

Safety plans, unlike Diversity Plans, are not submitted with the application. Instead, they will be requested as Just-In-Time materials. Nevertheless, applicants should consider resources that may be needed to maintain a safe and respectful environment as they are preparing an application. The guide notice identifies a minimum set of required elements to be addressed, which include:

  • Statement of commitment to provide a safe environment
  • Expectations of behavior
  • Instructions on how to confidentially report alleged violations of the expectations of behavior to conference organizers
  • Description of how the organizers will assess allegations and the consequences for those who are found to violate the expectations of behavior

Through steps like these and other related efforts, we will continue creating meaningful reforms to end harassment in biomedical and behavioral science. We hope that attendees will feel welcomed at NIH-supported conferences to share their scientific ideas, perspectives, and points of view without concerns about harassment and discrimination.

For more on conference safety plans, please review our R13/U13 conference page and FAQs.

3 Comments

  1. I really appreciate that OER is making statements to address harassment and bullying, but so far all of the interventions are mere window-dressing and effectively kicking the can down to university faculty who have yet one additional document to craft in their never ending quest for more money. If NIH really wanted to show support of trainees, they would dissociate research dollars from training dollars, and require that institutions have 3rd party (not the PI) oversight to ensure that training meets the needs of the trainee. Also, the NIH needs to majorly overhaul NRSA regulations to allow for fellows to be seen as employees. It is an absurdly draconian and obsolete system that only causes problems for the fellows. I know many people who wish they had never applied for F32 awards due to the headaches that they cause. NASA, NSF and other federal agencies have figured out how to modernize and protect the scientists of the future. NIH needs to do much better.

    1. I agree that this amounts to just another form that the PI needs to complete – when they do not usually have the appropriate expertise. It seems that if the NIH wants to ensure diversity and safety, they should provide more information and instruction on how they expect this be implemented in this conference situation. It is similar to the PEDP plans required for the latest BRAIN initiative grants in that PIs were instructed to provide information, but they do not have the expertise to know what might be effective. It resulted in more work for the PI and the reviewers, with the only impact in most cases being that the PI had to consider diversity. This is important but will not lead to actual change without some expert solutions.

  2. I have lost count of the number of times a meeting of hundreds of scientists HAD to be held in the Washington DC area just because one or two Project Scientists from the NIH study would be in attendance (and had to be in attendance).

    Those meetings and conferences in DC are terrible, due to the location restriction. To make a bad situation worse, the NIH staff are always on their own home turf, which is a breeding ground for harassment and bullying.

    Where is the NIH requirement to prevent that from happening? What about the conflict of interest inherent in the NIH being the funding source, and also dictating the location and tone of events such as meetings? Please fix your own system before, rightly, adding more work for investigators to prevent harassment.

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