Case Study in Research Integrity: You Can Disagree, Without Being Disagreeable

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We are committed to ensuring a safe and respectful workplace wherever NIH-supported research occurs. Be it at a recipient institution, at a conference where scientific ideas are exchanged, or in our own intramural labs, everybody deserves to work in an environment that is free of harassment, bullying, intimidation, threats, or other disruptive and inappropriate behaviors. Likewise, this goes for NIH program officers, scientific review officers (SROs), grants management specialists, and other extramural staff who are dedicated to helping NIH fulfill its mission to improve the public’s health. Unfortunately, we are seeing a number of cases of uncivil behavior coming from individuals outside of NIH, directed at NIH extramural staff.

Let’s consider the following scenario.

Dr. Jones, a researcher seeking grant support from NIH, participates in a virtual conference call with an NIH program officer to discuss the summary statement from a recently resubmitted grant application. Soon after the meeting began, Jones’s tone and demeanor quickly turned aggressive.

With a raised voice, Jones states that the review process was unfair and misleading, as issues in the original application were corrected. The virtual temperature rises further when the program officer attempted to explain the NIH process for appealing peer review outcomes. Jones regularly interrupts and speaks loudly non-stop, being condescending, hostile, and unpleasant at various times during the conversation.

Picture another incident.

Dr. Smith, upset about an application not being discussed during study section, emails the NIH SRO saying the review was unfair. This email is not cause for concern as long as the interaction remained civil. The SRO respectfully instructs Smith about how to file an appeal. Instead of letting the appeal take its course, Smith emails the SRO at least fifty more times, accusing them of lacking integrity and scientific competence as well as threatening to report the SRO to NIH leadership and beyond.

Even after the application went through the appeals process and was denied by Council, Smith continues emailing the SRO, accusing NIH staff and Council members of being unethical. NIH makes it very clear that “the recommendation of Council concerning resolution of an appeal is final and will not be considered again by the NIH through this or another process. At no time should the Program Director/Principal Investigator or an official of the applicant organization attempt to contact individual members of the Council to discuss their consideration of an application or appeal, as doing so could jeopardize the confidentiality of the review process.”

Here is one more to bring home the point.

Dr. Doe, the principal investigator on a cooperative agreement, is upset that progress was not moving quickly as expected. As things went wrong, Doe often attempts to blame others, including the associated NIH staff, turning to yelling, interrupting, gaslighting, and other behaviors during the monthly conference calls.

These incidents happened. We only changed the names and identifiers in these scenarios. Unfortunately, they are not rare occurrences. Abusive messages, phone calls, and other interactions such as these, whether they be in real life or virtual, are harassing and disruptive to our extramural staff managing the grants process. And by not addressing such unacceptable behaviors when they happen, it leads to an unsafe workplace here at NIH, potentially affecting the ability of NIH staff to conduct mission-critical work.

An infographic entitled, “Actions or behavior that adversely impact agency operations, productivity, and/or work environment.” the visual is a list of several inappropriate behaviors including rude Comments, ridicule, disrespectful Jokes or Insults, inappropriate Yelling or Expletives, excessive Emailing or Calling, psychological Bullying, intimidation, threats Against Others, as well as rude Gestures or Expressions.

When faced with such inappropriate and uncivil conduct, our staff are encouraged to notify us via GranteeHarassment@nih.gov. Our office takes each notification seriously. When reviewing the allegations, we will determine if:

  • The person of concern is non-NIH staff, affiliated with an NIH-funded grant award or application, employed by a recipient institution, and/or involved with peer review service
  • Whether sufficient information exists to proceed, conducting follow-up conversations if needed.

We will then share relevant information directly with the Vice President for Research of the recipient institution, other appropriate leadership at the institution, or (in certain situations) the person of concern. The correspondence will explain whether the alleged behavior affected any NIH-funded activities. We will reiterate our expectations that their employees engage in civil interactions and behaviors with our extramural staff. The recipient is given thirty days to respond and must share their codes of conduct and/or policies addressing inappropriate conduct among their employees.

If warranted, my office will not hesitate to act, especially in cases where the inappropriate conduct continues. We may remove the offender from peer review service, take allowable grants management actions, contact the NIH police, or consider other appropriate measures. Institutional leadership should also consider holding their staff accountable too when necessary.

Emotions may run high when someone puts together an application, receives unfavorable review feedback, or waits for a response from extramural staff. We understand differences of opinion exist throughout the scientific process, but that does not mean our staff should be the targets of improper, harassing, and threatening behaviors. Going forward, we should embody the words spoken by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (from the title of this post), and remain respectful throughout the grants process.

23 Comments

  1. Dr, Lauer,
    It is a tremendous service you have done for our NIH employees who have to deal with irate behaviors when appicants don’t get what they want. Certainly, there is always disappointment with unfunded grants. Our culture is changing to one of your for me or against me positioning without a middle for discourse. I wish and hope your words are suitable to curb at least some of the behaviors, as the staff at NIH are doing their jobs in good faith. The review process is far from perfect and mistakes are made, but as you point out there is a civil way to address it. Nevertheless, it might also be time for NIH to rethink the ever growing documents and requirements that must be met to submit a grant. As the burden of these requirements have grown, it makes the submission process even more arduous, which may be contributing to the frustration and over reactions by some.

  2. NIH staff do not review or rank your applications, they merely administer the process. So let’s five them a break.

  3. For the grant-writing investigator, the ability to give and receive constructive criticism without taking it personally is as important a skill as generating a well-crafted argument. Learning from criticism is an essential part of the grant development process, but it’s hard to take on information when all you see is red. Our group-based writing sessions for junior investigators are as much about giving and receiving critiques constructively as about honing the grant narrative.

  4. Greetings Mike,
    Thank you for bringing this subject up. It is important for all of us to be kind to oneanother since the impact covid has had on our lives; distancing our communication and creating vacancies within our direct contacts at organizations. I too need to remember to take a breath before out reach sometimes. The thing I find challenging is some of my NIH contacts are doing unexpected and unpredictable actions and sometimes not responding at all. I am trying to figure out the new norm. It is almost as if many of us are experiencing varying degrees of post traumatic stress from our covid experience.

    We will get thru this together and it takes reminders like your message to bring it to the forefront so we can all make choices going forward.
    Peace………………….Sara

  5. The peer review process at NIH is so broken that I do NOT 100% blame the prospective grantees who lose it. Recently I participated in a study section meeting, where one of the applications was assigned to a primary reviewer who was so far removed from the area of study that he was repeatedly stumbling on the word “macrocyclic” (a native speaker, just probably had heard the word for the first time in his life, but unfortunately this was what the application was concerned with). What is the PI supposed to do when he/she receives a Summary Statement that reads like a missing chapter from Alice in the Wonderland, and when the nonsense written by the assigned reviewers translates into scores? Still keep it cool and professional, while the Program Officer has a vested interest in sweeping the issue under the carpet and continuing the business as usual?
    On the contrary, it is the PI and his team who devote hundreds of hours to prepare a meritorious application, and it is THEM who are entitled to respect and professionalism in the form of a meritorious peer review process. While there certainly are limits to acceptable PI responses (e.g. illegal credible threats should not be tolerated), please understand, dear NIH staff, that your own actions and neglect are building up this deep dissatisfaction in the peer review process.

  6. I so appreciate seeing this story highlighting the importance of civility. We’re seeing a total loss of polite discourse under the cover of anonymity and a call for honest feedback within our systems. I hope we can replace aggressive discord with respectful discourse. Honest is great, but “mean” has no place in professional or personal conversations.

  7. I don’t have time to look up specific cases, but some of the ire NIH receives is well-deserved. I have had to endure abuse, open sarcasm and just plain stupidity from Study Section members. That being said, I don’t think I ever took it out on your staff.

  8. Sad to hear that our NIH program officers, staff and leaders are subjected to this. They are are hard working, dedicated, helpful and knowledgeable in my experience. And they make our work possible! I hope that everyone at the NIH knows that the vast majority of us value your work and commitment and are grateful for the guidance you provide – even if it is not what we hope to hear. Keep up the good work!

  9. I am a Professor at a major university. I am a statistician, designed many clinical trials, mostly in cancer, and have many publications on clinical trial design.

    I experienced bad behavior while participating in a study section via Zoom.. I pointed out the proposed clinical trial under review was under-powered, improperly designed, and was likely to fail its objectives for several reasons. Another member of the study section cut me off saying, in part, “…and that’s why statisticians don’t understand research.” I wasn’t allowed to speak after the other member made this comment.

    Such poor behavior was tolerated by the study chair. I have refused to participate in any NIH study section since, if this is the way my discipline is viewed. I have received much better respect performing similar duties at EPA and FDA.

    It is not only those applying for grants who behave badly, but others in the process as well.

  10. This issue is an important one, and I’m glad to hear NIH staff have a means to raise problems. However, as I’ve written many times on posts like this over several years as well as in NIH questionnaires, where is the method of raising the inversed issue? NIH officials hold the purse strings over grant awardees, so there is a power dynamic in place which is susceptible to abuse. I have had personal experience of an NIH program director not just raising a “virtual temperature” in an online meeting but using physical violence at an in-person meeting. I look forward to the NIH taking this kind of abuse seriously. For the record, I’ve never had anyone from the NIH reach out to me to investigate my concerns, despite raising them for years via several methods.

  11. Hello,

    I have been retired for over 10 years and as such have no ties to current or future applications for funding. Hopefully my message will be accepted in the spirit of sincerity. During my 40 year career, I have had funding from NIH and have participated in numerous grant application reviews, site visits, and served on NIH review committees as well as serving as Chair. Perhaps I have been fortunate, but I have never observed actions or behaviors as that have described by Mike Lauer by researchers seeking grant support. In my experience, members of review committees, NIH staff — program officers, scientific review officers (SROs), and grants management specialists have always been courteous, professional and fair, Unfortunately these behaviors seem to be more contemporary in time and parallels the increasing breakdown in our society’s civility. My fear is that persons who engage in incivility are also instilling such behavior in their children — the binomial expansion of such behavior is disheartening.

    Thank you for bringing forward this issue and articulating the need to re-calibrate how people communicate with each other. We must not lose sight of keeping our eye on funding the best science, i.e., it is placing precious taxpayers dollars on the best bets.

  12. I am retired but still active and have served on an NIMH study committee. In the comments above some are complaining about problems in the NIH review process or administration. None of these justify hostile harassing behavior on the part of applicants (or NIH staff). This is all part of an increasing atmosphere of intemperate behavior on social media and in person in this country.

  13. Dear Mike,
    A question that you don’t discuss, but hint at is, Why is such activity increasing? There is a message that may be being missed in becoming prematurely dismissive about the behavior. Issues rarely have just one perspective. Perhaps the behavior is suggesting a growing displeasure about the NIH review protocols and procedures that are currently in place.
    While, it is right to remind people to remain civil in their discourse, only focusing on the tone of the messages and not the messages themselves is not necessarily the best way to remain responsive to the “individuals outside of NIH,” who are in actuality customers of the NIH. If customers are screaming and yelling and the rate of such occurrences is increasing, then that the NIH would be wise to look more deeply into the root cause(s).
    It is unfortunate that the extramural NIH staff are the ones that are forced to bare the brunt of the frustration regarding NIH policies, which on the surface are not meeting the needs of the customer base. A final question to consider: “Can the grant processes be changed in a such a way that the processes are more transparent and engender more civil discourse on all sides?”

  14. I have maintained for years the best way to ” fix ” the review process is to install accountability into it . This could be easily accomplished by allowing the PI a one page ” pre-rebuttal ” of the primary reviewers comments made available to all the reviewers before the full meeting and scoring . This should inhibit grossly biased or incompetent reviews , which would have to be defended in the context of the PI’s response.

  15. I am saddened that this post is necessary. As stated above, the NIH staff do not make decisions. They facilitate the process. Yes, completing a grant application is arduous – rejection does not justify abusive and unprofessional behavior. I wonder if sanctions for such behavior might reduce their prevalence. What you permit, you promote.

  16. As a researcher from a family affected multiply by autism, and by broader-phenotype dimensional characteristics that affect vocal communication, I feel compelled to point out that what one person may perceive as a voice raised in anger might actually only be a voice dysmodulated amid the excitement and anxiety of trying to make a point.
    Please do not assume that a raised voice always signals anger.
    Sometimes, for some individuals, it does indeed. But in the general case let’s please make the least harmful assumption. It’s OK to ask someone to try to speak more softly or more slowly. It is not OK in the general case to accuse such a person of intentional offence, especially if that accusation is levelled in the first instance through some back channel such as GranteeHarrassment@nih.gov instead of in careful and deliberate feedback to the individual involved. A lot of us broader-phenotype individuals have some small degree of the social communicative challenges, even though we don’t have the diagnostic label. For further details see my chapter “How Individuals and Institutions Can Learn to Make Room for Human Cognitive Diversity”, in _Neurodiversity Studies: A New Critical Paradigm_ (Routledge, 2020).
    Thanks for reading.

  17. I have a hard time believing that the examples that were chosen to exemplify improper conduct from grant applicants are the norm. They are likely extreme cases and certainly not acceptable. I am sure most applicants use a professional tone to voice their concerns. SROs typically do not respond to specific critiques and refer to the POs to discuss the outcomes of reviews. However, POs rarely pay any attention to grants that were not discussed, and I don’t see POs following all the discussions in the study sections, in particular those grants discussed on the second day of a regular meeting. Let’s be honest and acknowledge that there is no official feedback mechanism in place for an applicant to voice concerns to the SROs about potential COIs, poor judgment in the assignment of reviewers, and clear cases of negligence by certain individuals. There has to be a feedback mechanism and a database to collect information about individual reviewers (perhaps a grading scale) to improve the quality of the reviews and, more importantly, to eliminate those people from study sections who repeatedly display a lack of professionalism. This should include SROs who forward sloppy reviews where comments are riddled with spelling errors.

  18. Government bureaucrats and the compliance officers paid by companies to extend the unconstitutional power grabs of government bureaucrats are going to be thought of akin to tax collectors and should expect some grief. But academics going begging to suck off the government teat at NIH are trying to make a deal with the devil and should expect to be disappointed, and not whine about it. And being a jerk to a fellow human is counterproductive and unkind. The more that NIH avoids funding academics undertaking their hobby investigations of their pet proteins, the better. The more that NIH avoids funding corporations to perform R and D, the better. Instead of whining and insulting NIH bureaucrats when they DON’T blow taxpayer money, just don’t apply for NIH funding. (Sadly, I think NIH controls a huge majority of the medical research funding–wrongly so. So until NIH doesn’t have almost monopoly control, it is going to hear some honorable angst from honorable people… unlike the whiny attacks described in the original post.

  19. It is inappropriate and disgusting on many levels for anyone to be treated less than human and I appreciate this reminder of people to be considerate of interactions with NIH stuff. However, I do think the frustrations of the PIs with the peer review process needs to be addressed as well, which may be a main issue at the root of non-civil behavior. It’d be great if there was a Town Hall allowing for engagement from PIs and trainees on topics related to the grant application and review processes. I just want to make sure that the NIH is actively making strides to address this really big issue that is a cause of frustration and literally is causing labs to be closed and students to leave/not enter academia.

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