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.
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: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/harassment/data.