Congress Strengthens NIH’s Ability To Address Harassment in NIH-funded Activities

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Marie Bernard headshot
Marie A. Bernard, M.D., NIH Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity.

The recently passed Consolidated Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2022 includes “Section 239,” which is a milestone in our efforts to ensure safe working conditions for people engaged in NIH-supported research. The law requires NIH grant recipients to notify us when their senior key personnel are removed from their position or are otherwise disciplined due to concerns about harassment, bullying, retaliation, or hostile working conditions. This is a major step in our continued effort to change the culture of harassment in biomedical science.

The NIH Grants Policy Statement Section 4, states that NIH recipient institutions are expected to provide safe and healthful working conditions for their employees and foster work environments conducive to high-quality research. Towards this end, and in response to a 2018 National Academies report and recommendations from the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director, we have taken the following steps:

  • NIH expects recipients requesting prior approval for changing a principal investigator, key personnel, or recipient institution to include mention as to whether these requests are related to concerns about the safety and/or work environment, including issues related to sexual harassment or bullying (see this post and NIH Grants Policy Statement Sections 1.2.6 and 8.1.2.7)
  • Established an agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights for information sharing to facilitate case handling (see this post)
  • Updated our anti-harassment website to encompass the range of threats to safe and respectful workplaces at institutions receiving NIH funding (see this post)
  • Administered the inaugural NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey in 2019 and developed resources such as a findings report, infographics, and survey methodology institutions can adopt as they deem appropriate to their needs.

These and other related efforts have led to more than 400 notifications received between 2018 to March 2022. NIH worked with funded institutions on 112 confirmed findings of harassment, resulting in institutions removing 92 individuals from NIH grants and taking other actions for the remaining cases. More data are available here.

So, as described in a statement issued today by NIH Acting Director Lawrence Tabak, “While NIH has made progress toward our goal of ending harassment in biomedical research, NIH lacked clear authority to require funded institutions to report to NIH whether personnel changes to an NIH grant are related to harassment, only that they should report it. This limited NIH’s awareness of when harassment was affecting NIH-supported activities, and therefore NIH’s ability to take necessary action to ensure appropriate grant stewardship.”  With the implementation of Section 239, that changes today.

graphic with blue silhouettes of different people (incl. women, men, and a person in a wheelchair) with a red place marker reading "harassment doesn't work here"As of July 9, 2022 (see NOT-OD-22-129), recipient institutions must report within 30 days of when “individuals identified as a principal investigator or as key personnel in an NIH notice of award are removed from their position or are otherwise disciplined due to concerns about harassment, bullying, retaliation, or hostile working conditions” to our dedicated web form. The following information should be reported:

  • Name of the Authorized Organization Representative submitting the notification
  • Name of the individual of concern
  • Description of the concerns
  • Action(s) taken
  • Anticipated impact on the NIH-funded award(s)

We will then consult with the institution. If necessary, we may take additional actions ranging from changing personnel, restricting award funds, or suspending or terminating the grant as outlined in the NIH Grants Policy Statement.

This is a major step in helping us continue ensuring the safety for all involved in NIH-supported research. As Dr. Tabak noted in his statement, “Wherever NIH research activities take place, our priority will always be to do what we can to eliminate harassment and ensure that the integrity of scientific endeavor is never compromised by the fundamental injustice of workplace harassment.”

If you have concerns about harassment, discrimination, and other forms of inappropriate conduct at your institution, please find help here.

16 Comments

  1. Wonderful that a concrete step has been taken! I’m wondering if a loophole still remains, where an investigator can resign and move to another institution before the investigation is complete? If so, are there ideas for how to prevent that?

  2. A welcome step. However, it does nothing to hold the NIH to account for its own staff harassing, bullying and intimidating grant holders. In my experience, such unprofessional behavior was much more likely to come from NIH staff, rather than ” principal investigators, key personnel, or recipient institutions”.

  3. Once a report is made to NIH, what will then be done to hold harassers accountable? Are we to expect that NIH is willing to pull funding? If so, under what circumstances, and what provisions would be made for protecting trainees who would then have no mentor and no funding for their work?

  4. The unintended result of this will be the exact opposite that this Act was meant to achieve. Institutions will be LESS likely to discipline key personnel and PIs, and make it harder to file complaints – out of fear that the NIH might pull or threaten funding to PIs that receive disciplinary action. This only raises the bar for filing a complaint and having it taken seriously, and this will only disempower victims of workplace bullying and abuse. Institutions will be less likely to discipline their “earners” if the NIH were to threaten their grant status. It will be no surprise when the institution investigates itself, and finds that there was no wrong doing!

    Because of the disparity of power between PIs/key personnel and lower level employees (students, techs, etc.) this will only make actionable outcomes against PIs/key personnel further beyond the reach of those likely to suffer from their abuse. Harassments and abuse will continue, and research intensive institutes will only become more toxic. This does nothing to empower the people filing complaints and suffering from workplace abuse. I know a lot of people that haven’t/won’t file complaints because of this power disparity that already exists and the power that PIs/key personnel have over people’s careers. This Act will ensure that the disparity only grows and grant receiving institutions will protect the “grant earners”, not the workers. Anybody who has ever suffered abuse from a toxic PI will know exactly what I’m talking about. This Act will accomplish nothing and is merely a token action to look like the NIH wants to address workplace abuse.

    I hope I’m wrong on this, workplace abuse is horrible and toxic people need to be removed from the research community – there is much more scientific potential locked up in people who suffer from abuse than the relatively little value of PIs that perpetrate abuse.

    1. Senior key personnels are never disciplined by the institutions, especially if they are well funded and bring in money. I do not think this Law will change the situation for the victims of harassement or that it will lead to more accountability. Institutions always find the way to make cases and complaints disappear. This is all just for the show! Talks without walks unfortunately.

  5. Harassment is a serious issue that should be addressed. The latest NIH policies instead enable organizations such as universities to engage in egregious conflicts of interest, letting off the guilty or punishing the innocent depending on what most benefits those organizations. None of the NIH policies seek to provide any protections or due process for grantees facing allegations. The policies are only concerned with punishments, with advocates like those commenting above asking how potential punishments might be increased further.

    Mike Lauer and NIH appear more interested in looking on top of a problem than achieving justice for either victims or wrongly accused perpetrators. The numbers in this article are presented as harassment cases, but according to the link provided the numbers include cases that do not involve harassment.

  6. Harassment is a serious issue that should be addressed. The latest NIH policies instead enable organizations such as universities to engage in egregious conflicts of interest, letting off the guilty or punishing the innocent depending on what most benefits those organizations. None of the NIH policies seek to provide any protections or due process for grantees facing allegations. The policies are only concerned with punishments, with advocates like those commenting above asking how potential punishments might be increased further. Mike Lauer and NIH appear more interested in looking on top of a problem than achieving justice for either victims or the wrongly accused. The numbers in this article are presented as harassment cases, but according to the link provided the numbers include cases that do not involve harassment.

  7. What if Key personnel is harrassed (in a closed way, not necessarily sexual) by the PI so that he/she comes to a point to quit the job so the PI can hire a junior researcher to complete the work and pay less as opposed to what was asked (salary for key personnel) during the grant submission?

  8. I’m afraid this policy, while well-intentioned, does not protect victims of harassment. I’m particularly troubled by the potential consequences associated with the required reporting to NIH, which have the potential to severely disrupt or end the careers of the victims and other students/staff in the affected lab. The reason this harassment has been going on is the dependence of students/staff on funding (and recommendations) provided by the offending PI, with the threat of withdrawing funding often being used by the PI as a tool to silence victims. As long as the NIH does not provide assurance to the victims of harassment that there is a process to continue funding their research, and especially if NIH threatens ending funding as a consequence, this policy will silence victims and possibly even affect the response by University administrators to reports, in an effort to protect their students. This could easily be fixed by requiring the Institution to provide a suitable PI to replace the offending PI for all involved students/staff to complete their funded research in question. The threat of loss of funding should be reserved for future funds for the offending PI. NIH, please consider changing your policy to protect victims, encourage reporting and proper investigations by institutions, and not threaten to end current funds that the victims of harassment depend on.

  9. I appreciate the perspectives provided above in that they surface the very complicated dynamics surrounding harassment and the implications of different approaches to addressing them. Harassers, those who discriminate, or cultivate toxic work environments should be addressed in every field, not just research, and credit is due to the NIH (and NSF) for attempting to address the problem at a point of significant leverage, the funding source. I am aware of two funders in the entire country who have made addressing harassment a priority. Period. I read that as progress. Change and transition are difficult, and perfection is rarely found on the first go when change is sought and applied within human systems. I second the notion that punitive-first approaches can drive solutions that prioritize liability management over “justice”, and encourage the consideration of restorative practices as an instrument to resolution (see J. Goldscheid, #MeToo, Sexual Harassment and Accountability: Considering the Role of Restorative Approaches). While it may not feel like it, this community is ahead of the curve and the nation in addressing this issue. I hope that interested and invested parties could use this as a learning opportunity to continue to learn from one another, adjust the strategy as needed, and repeat until you land upon something that works best for all. I think you will find your small wins will add up to a much greater sum of its parts for those working in your field and those outside of it.

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