Case Study in Research Integrity – Banned From Supervising, Can’t Go in Lab, but No Impact on NIH Funded Research?


We have seen rising numbers of allegations related to harassment, discrimination, and hostile work environments since 2018 (when we first started tracking them). In many cases, we successfully work with recipient institutions to put appropriate measures in place to address unsafe working environments. These measures may include removing the principal investigator (PI) from the award or putting additional oversight measures in place. However, too often we hear from institutions that a PI has violated the institution’s policies and is no longer permitted to supervise students or staff, but there will be “no impact on NIH-funded work.”

We have a problem with this response. How can the NIH-funded work not be impacted if the PI has been found not suitable to supervise others? This situation causes us to worry not only about the safety of the lab environment, but also about the message that this behavior sends to the entire institution. We must ensure that NIH-funded research is being conducted in a safe and respectful environment conducive to high quality research.

Let’s look further. The example presented here is based on true experiences, with all identifiable information changed or removed. Please also keep in mind that in general NIH makes awards to institutions. Our engagement is focused on institutions, who in turn employ researchers designated on NIH awards.

A lab technician in Dr. Jones’ lab was working, what seemed to be, excessively long hours with very little time for personal breaks, including lunch and dinner. Research personnel often work long hours you might be thinking, especially considering that Dr. Jones was a PI on multiple NIH grants with progress reports due and manuscripts planned. But this was going to the extreme, and other working conditions became more and more stressful.

Gender appeared to dictate how some assignments were made. Favoritism led to how lab resources were distributed. Tensions rose further as unprofessional behaviors became more and more commonplace. People’s positions in the lab were threatened if they didn’t produce expected results. They were afraid to make a mistake.

This situation is not conducive to the high-quality research that NIH expects, and too often it is junior staff and trainees that bear the brunt of these behaviors.

The technician in this example had had enough. Summoning up the strength and fortitude, they notified their institution’s human resources office about the situation. After a thorough internal investigation, Dr. Jones’ behavior—mistreatment of lab staff, bullying, inappropriate statements, and threats of retaliation—was found to have violated institutional policies and caused a hostile and unsafe work environment.

The recipient institution acted. Dr. Jones was placed on a performance improvement plan that involved no direct supervision of lab members and the requirement to seek supervisory training and coaching on interpersonal communications. After a year, Dr. Jones’ progress and the overall workplace climate would be assessed to determine if restrictions can be modified or eliminated.

The recipient institution self-reported the outcome of their investigation and the actions taken to us, which is a requirement of accepting an NIH grant. We appreciated that the institution was taking the issue seriously and putting steps into place to address the inappropriate behavior.

Our eyebrows rose, however, when the institution noted that there would be no impact on the NIH grants and that Dr. Jones would remain the PI on multiple awards even though they are not permitted to supervise staff or trainees.

Wait, what?

There is a PI out there who is not trusted to supervise people because they created a hostile workplace, but yet it is fine for them to continue overseeing NIH awards?

From the NIH perspective, this is a compliance problem, not a disciplinary issue (see NIH Grants Policy statement 8.5 for more about steps NIH may take to remedy noncompliance). Part of proper stewardship of federal awards is having recipients ensure that the researchers they designate on an application not only intellectually lead a project, but logistically too (see NIH grants Policy Statement 2.1.2).

Another way to think of it: what if a grant application was submitted with a PI who could not supervise. How is that conducive to high quality research? Would this application get a fundable score in this highly competitive environment? It makes us wonder if this taxpayer money could have gone elsewhere.

We hope that, by bringing attention to this issue, recipients will consider other options about who will lead their NIH-supported projects in similar situations as a way to continue ensuring safe and respectful workplaces, conducive to the highest quality science.

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

Editor’s Note (added 8/16/23 in response to reader comments): This particular case study was based on various real world examples. If an institution, which is responsible for senior/key personnel on an NIH-funded grant, is not in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies, NIH can, and has, taken several actions that could result in a change in senior personnel, or other grant actions. See our data on outcomes:


  1. “A lab technician in Dr. Jones’ lab was working, what seemed to be, excessively long hours with very little time for personal breaks, including lunch and dinner. Gender appeared to dictate how some assignments were made. Favoritism led to how lab resources were distributed. Tensions rose further as unprofessional behaviors became more and more commonplace. People’s positions in the lab were threatened if they didn’t produce expected results. They were afraid to make a mistake.”

    LOL. Welcome to the kind and gentle world of academia. Such behaviors are exceedingly common, especially in ethnically homogeneous labs where labor is imported from overseas, and workers are afraid to speak out lest they find themselves out of a job and have to return to their home countries. These workers have no rights or recourse because the well-funded PI is the darling of institutional powers that are drunk on those indirect costs the PI brings in, and the detached NIH officials will take no action.

  2. I know a few Dr Jones. I am sure everyone does. They are likely to be the highly insecure petty emperors, who selfishly steal their post-doc’s research data and ideas, do not tolerate independent thought/criticism, do not support independence of their trainees, hire slave labor from abroad, and will take money from wherever they can get it, even if it means compromising national security, and not disclose the sources of their funding.

  3. If Dr. Jones is no longer the PI and there is no scientifically appropriate alternate PI to take over so the award is terminated, what happens to the technician’s job?

    I understand the intent, but it seems to me that this might be a case of perverse incentives.

  4. These situations will continue to be common as long as 1) the institution values the grant funding more than protecting its employees, 2) the jobs and careers of trainees are dependent on the ongoing beneficence of their PI, and 3) the NIH continues to fund investigators despite their commonly-known misbehaviors. Study section members know who these folks are and continue to recommend funding knowing that 1) nothing in study section is secret and 2) these PIs are their collaborators, their manuscript reviewers, and will be reviewing their own grants. If they want to fix the system, they need to have a mechanism by which whistleblowers don’t lose their jobs/careers/visas when they report, because right now the cost of speaking up far outweighs the benefits…because there are no benefits.

  5. If the NIH were more serious about eliminating all room for subterfuge in this space, then they could make it mandatory that funded institutes release personnel records of complaints against PIs. Until then, relying on self-reporting is going to perpetuate plausible deniability and not help people who would acutely benefit from this info.

    Signing as myself, and as someone who has gone through reporting NIH-funded PIs for shenanigans. I would encourage others to do so as well to break the cycle of assumed power in academia. We give these folks the power they use over us. Remember that we can take it back. I found a better place after leaving past abusive environments. Whistleblowing isn’t a death sentence. A career in science shouldn’t feel like one, either.

  6. So…. at no point does this article tell us what happened to Dr. Jones. Was his funding pulled? Why is this information left out? And if it was NOT pulled, then what is the point of this article?

    1. This case study example was based on true experiences, not necessarily a specific incident. That said, and as described on our NIH Actions and Oversight page, “If an institution, which is responsible for senior/key personnel on an NIH-funded grant, is not in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies, NIH can take several actions that could include or result in a change in senior personnel, or remedies for noncompliance, such as suspension or termination of the grant award.”

  7. So what is the correct response? You never answer the key question here. I can tell you from experience that the work on the grant WAS impacted from at least the moment that the internal investigation was started. Should someone have been designated as PI- first runner up? And if so, how does that impact their ability to gain funding?

    1. As noted in a response to an earlier comment, this particular case study was based on various real world examples. If an institution, which is responsible for senior/key personnel on an NIH-funded grant, is not in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies, NIH can, and has, taken several actions that could result in a change in senior personnel, or other grant actions. See our data on outcomes

  8. Can I PLEASE come work for you? I am an advocate leader of an organization, who I myself have been threatened, and we have lost incredibly excellent undergrads and post docs because of it! It’s infuriating because we’re losing great minds. There’s no oversight research in the labs and people being forced to change data because they’re scared. Their entire career are threatened all because of the need to publish and make it look good. This affects our patient communities this affects drug development. And by God, I don’t care about being a whistleblower because these types of people do not deserve MY PUBLIC TAX DOLLARS, and don’t deserve the accolades or recognition they’ve received. It’s been part of the “greater institution”. If you have to threaten someone to get ahead or lie, then you don’t deserve my $$$, I went to law school to defend, ethics and compliance and create environments where there’s fair, reasonable distribution of funds and work, and credit where credit is due, if you got a job opening, by God, I will take it because I am scared of no one, why? It won’t change my sons disorder and helping our patient communities. Somebody needs to put their foot down, and I am not scared to do it! There are people that have done incredible research, and they have been blackballed, just like me if you’d like to see the emails I’m happy to share. And keep in mind some that don’t go along with what the other more powerful people say will be blackballed too.

  9. There are plenty of Dr. Jones’ out there for sure. However, when a PI is restricted from having students in their labs, no one knows except through the rumor mill. I know faculty who have such restrictions, but as far as I know, NIH has never been notified and many folks even on our campus do not know. In my decades of experience, study sections do not know who the bad guys are at all. Many of them keep getting more and more grants and only view trainees and assistants as nothing more than data generators with little regard to their careers. I don’t care if they publish in Nature, but science is not helped by these people. Finally, the biggest barrier is that institutions want the prestige and indirect costs from the grants and so they are in a conflict of interest when it comes to reporting this or frankly any sort of scientific misconduct. I don’t see any way of improving the situation unless NIH has penalties for bad behavior even for the institutions if they turn blind eyes.

  10. A great many of child abusers were abused as children. The hostile lab environment has been propagated by generations of NIH-funding investigators. Like gender discrimination and sexual harassment being called out by the ME-TOO movement, hostile work environment is being called out now. The NIH is dependent on the grantee Institutions for enforcing fair treatment of laboratory workers, students and postdocs. It is not possible for the NIH or the study section to conduct such enforcement. In other words, keeping PIs in check is a local responsibility and requires local enforcement. The most effective way, in my view, is for workers, students and postdocs in an Institution to share their experiences working with hostile PIs among each other. The best way to shut down a hostile PI is to deprive that person of lab members. Perhaps NIH can require grantee institutions to develop an intra-net for laboratory workers in NIH-funded labs so that they can share their experiences and warn others not to join the labs of hostile PIs.

  11. I have a ‘Dr. Jones’ or two in my own department, but my institution seems to do everything in its power to sweep issues under the rug. For instance, one of these ‘Dr. Jones’ was unable to take graduate students or post-docs due to harassment and misconduct. I didn’t learn about this until last year, and this year this PI had summer students working in their lab, but no one seems to know why they are suddenly able to mentor again.

    I come from a very blue-collar background; I have an unfortunately intimate knowledge on what hostile work environments look like. What I’ve found during my time as a PhD student is that Academic jobs, unlike ‘normal’ jobs, seem to be suffering from a historic lack of oversight or even care when it comes to PIs’ management of their lab. Even though a university or college within a university is the ‘employer’, at least so far as my W-2s are concerned, each PI is able to run their lab however they see fit, and toxicity is the norm in many cases. Just in my institution, I’ve seen verbal and emotional abuse, research and profession misconduct, nepotism, favoritism, brazen retaliation—the list goes on. The institutional response has been overwhelmingly underwhelming in each of these cases. And I know several of these have been reported to the NIH.

    Until I see different, articles like these only serve as exercises in virtue signaling. Until these PIs face actual and measurable consequences from both their funding sources and their respective institutions, nothing will change.

    1. As noted in a response to an earlier comment, this particular case study was based on various real world examples. If an institution, which is responsible for senior/key personnel on an NIH-funded grant, is not in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies, NIH can, and has, taken several actions that could result in a change in senior personnel, or other grant actions. See our data on outcomes

  12. It would seem that one solution would be to consider whistleblower status for these staff. Taking government money, and then using it in a way that violates the law, certainly violates some federal law. Right now, these poor staff gain little by complaining and the PI loses almost nothing from abusing staff. What if the grant dollars needed to be refunded to the government and the staff that reported the violation got a quarter of the value of the grant that funded this illegal behavior? Now institutions would be less enamored with the “hard charging” abusers.

  13. There is another view here that should be considered. Some institutions do internal investigations of so-called “hostile” work environments, without getting the full story. I know of a colleague who was accused of creating a hostile environment by a disgruntled graduate student who was not making good progress on her milestones. The student complained to two other faculty who then took the complaint to the Chair and eventually to the Dean. No one talked to the faculty PI to get their side, which would have been the appropriate first step. After three separate investigations, the final conclusion was that there was no empirical basis for the graduate student’s complaint. Nevertheless, the Dean rejected the conclusion of the Faculty Investigative Committee and made an independent decision, not based on facts. The Dean also reported her conclusion to NIH but stated that the NIH grant was not affected by the alleged PI behavior. Indeed, the PI was able to continue work on the grant, despite the Dean doing everything possible to disrupt the PI’s life due to both age and sex discrimination. The bottom line is that NIH and others should obtain all sides of a story and not assume that if a university does an investigation that it is fair and accurate. Deans and other faculty often have their own agenda. I don’t know the details of Dr. Jone’s behaviors in your example, but please find out before condemning him and assuming that the grant work cannot get done.

    1. I totally agree with this post. Many institutions use claims of professionalism, unsubstantiated, and notify NIH, as a retaliation or discrimination strategy against a PI. I would go further to say that women and people of color are frequently targeted with these strategies when they successfully get NIH grants.

      1. Response to Another Perspective II: Indeed. That is exactly what happened. There are always two sides to every alleged behavior. Unsubstantiated accusations can cause a lot of disruption and damage, especially when the accusations turn out not to be supported by facts. The bottom line is that NIH should not assume that a university has done a truly fair and unbiased investigation and not accept the conclusions of the university without getting information from the accused PI as well.

  14. Question. Did the NIH leave the funding in place assigned to Dr Jones, or require the institution to document how research will actually be impacted? This story so far did not reveal that answer.

  15. I feel that the NIH Staff response of “See our data on outcomes” to the numerous questions above of how the NIH would react to the composite scenario is disingenuous. Clearly, many of us want to know: if the story were true as written, what would the NIH do? The answer is important because it will influence our decision to report cases or not.

    But let’s look at that data by clicking through to

    From 1 January 2018 – 15 April 2023, there were 76 cases of substantiated sexual harassment. This number is almost certainly very low. The reasons are, as others have noted above, that the backlash to individuals who report can be severe, and the incentives for universities are perverse. This situation leads other commenters above to use appropriately strong words, like “plausible deniability” (from Alejandro) and “virtue signaling” (from AGS).

    Of the 76 substantiated allegations, only 56 (less than 3/4) resulted in the removal of a PI. I assume this means removal of the PI from the NIH grant. If the substantiated allegations were for even worse things (sexual harassment plus something else), an even smaller fraction, less than 2/3 of PIs (19/31), were removed. Why aren’t these numbers closer to 100%? What happened in the other cases? I am sympathetic to the post by “Another perspective” that some accusations may be false. However, my own experience is closer to that described in the post by “David P.”, in which there are many examples of PIs who behave like the fictional Dr. Jones but have never been reported, or as that described by “AGS” in which cases have been reported, but nothing has been done.

    Last, I want to offer my sympathies to Jean Wang who has posted above. If you are the same Jean Wang who described experiencing unwanted physical advances by Inder Verma, I want to tell you that I am so sorry that happened to you. For any readers who are not familiar with the case, it appears in the Science article “Famed cancer biologist allegedly sexually harassed women for decades.”

    Jean posted an idea about how people can more effectively share information about abusive PIs. The only current clearinghouse of information that I know about is the Academic Sexual Misconduct Database at For legal reasons, the only data in that set come from public information, such as news articles, which means that the database captures only a small fraction of all cases. Nevertheless, it is useful, so if any of you know of publicly reported cases that do not appear in the database, please share the relevant public document with the e-mail listed at the bottom of their website ( Until funders and institutions step up their game to do the right thing, we should, at the very least, nurture the few resources we have.

    1. It is important to note that of the 206 allegations/notifications, only 154 (75%) of sexual harassment allegations had enough information to move forward to the institution. ((154/206)*100 = 75%)
      Of the 154 that moved forward to the institution, 138 (90%) were formally investigated by the institution. ((138/154)*100 = 90%)
      Of the 138 investigated by institutions, 76 (55%) were substantiated. ((76/138)*100 = 55%)

      Regarding the 56 PIs removed from awards, the category of “Principle Investigator Removed” represents situations in which the award continued, but without the particular PI attached to the project. There are other cases in which awards were terminated without going through the PI removal process. These cases are not reflected in the “Principle Investigator Removed” category at this time; they are reflected in “other grants actions.” “Other institutional safeguards” represent other meaningful actions taken by the institution.

      NIH is committed to following up on all reports of allegations of harassment on NIH-funded projects at recipient institutions. If there are concerns that harassment, including sexual harassment, discrimination, or other forms of inappropriate conduct that can result in a hostile work environment is affecting an NIH-funded project, we want to know about it. Notification may be done anonymously (but we do need enough information to allow us to follow up). Learn what to expect when notifying NIH.

  16. Until there is a check box on NIH/NSF grant applications that asks “Have any of the PIs on this proposal been investigated for a Title IX (or other workplace HR problem) violation?” and provision made for an explanation if the answer is “Yes,” nothing will change.
    There is a box to check for use of stem cells, etc., but nothing to screen for bad PIs. Institutions do not want to police their own faculty who continue to bring in grants, so bad PIs thrive, as long as they bring in grant money.
    NIH/NSF could help thwart the continuation of bad work environments due to bad PIs, simply by making it clear that HR violations/investigations and good science do not mix.

    1. Just because someone has been investigated doesn’t mean that the alleged violation is factually true. If such a check box was added, it should state that the investigation found irrefutable evidence to support the complaint.

  17. Another dimension to these complex situations is TIME. Trainees and postdocs are on a timeline given their training appointments year to year. Faculty running labs have spent years developing and running their labs. The time between trainees/lab staff recognizing problems, bringing problems forward to University officials, starting an investigation, completing an investigation, and making recommendations to NIH takes years. And during the “investigation,” nothing is said locally or reported to NIH, because evidence of wrongdoing has not been made. Right now, there are only two responses: innocent or guilty, and nothing can be done until those determinations have been finalized. Is there any utility for a category of “under review” to inform university leadership and NIH that there is an ongoing concern, and that steps are being made to investigate and resolve the problem? A suspected problem is identified, but no definitive conclusions are drawn, pending review. Then down the road the university can come to a conclusion and inform NIH of their findings.

    From a management perspective, these complex complaints require lots of time and energy and everyone carries an additional administrative burden, except the PI. The PI is protected by protracted silence.

  18. The bid Elephant in the Room is that disrespect, bullying, and hostile environments most commonly start at the top and filter down to individual PIs. The Provost, VP of Research, and Deans, and even some ‘Endowed’ institutional Chairmen turn their backs on the Values Policies that are touted by Presidents and Chancellors. You forget that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Therefore, institutions who have these kinds of negative environments are run by a corporate business philosophy which is more and more common these days to focus on the money rather than the welfare of their faculty. These Senior officials rarely have any real research experience, let alone understand what all it takes to collect pilot data, apply, submit, and actually obtain funding. These Senior officials are usually the key instigators of providing the horrible and hostile work environment and yet I have never seen any get reprimanded. Instead, they get rewarded from pushing their authority beyond the boundaries of civil behavior that should never be tolerated. With Federal indirect costs of 48% and higher, to Senior officials it is just a money-making pyramid to provide an academic infrastructure to keep well-funded ‘jerks’ in the lab and at the Senior administrative level at the cost of losing really good scientists, teachers, and students who are only asking for help to do their jobs better while getting the respect that they deserve.

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