September 17, 2018

Changing the culture of science to end sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is about power. The goal of the perpetrator, most commonly but not exclusively a man, is to objectify, exclude, demoralize, diminish, and coerce the victim, most commonly a woman, to exert power over her.  It’s morally indefensible, it’s unacceptable, and it presents a major obstacle that is keeping women from achieving their rightful place in science — as trainees representing the next generation of innovators, as researchers making important scientific discoveries, and as senior personnel on NIH-supported grants.  I was disheartened to read the conclusions of the recent National Academies report, which NIH funded along with other government science agencies, finding no evidence that current policies, procedures, and approaches have significantly reduced sexual harassment in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine. It is clear we must do more to change the fundamental culture of our organizations. 

NIH recognizes that we need to increase our transparency on this issue. Today we launched an anti-sexual harassment website that comprehensively outlines our policies, practices, and initiatives to address sexual harassment at NIH, at the institutions we support, and anywhere where NIH research activities take place.

In our intramural program, we hold ourselves accountable as employers, and have been intensively working to strengthen our systems for NIH employees to address, report, and prevent sexual harassment. These efforts have been guided by the NIH Anti-Sexual Harassment Steering Committee within my office.  New initiatives, which also will be summarized in a Federal Register Notice in a few days, include an updated policy on harassment; a new centralized process for managing reports of harassment, including making it easier to report; launching a robust communication, training, and education campaign; and administering a survey this winter to all NIH staff, including contractors, to assess NIH workplace climate and harassment. Results of this survey will be used to design initiatives targeting sexual harassment in the workplace.  Our goal is to create a paradigm shift in the scientific culture wherever NIH research activities take place to eliminate sexual harassment and enhance women’s contributions to scientific advancements.  In the future, we will encourage NIH-funded institutions to administer the survey to their researchers to gather a systematic national assessment that will inform data-driven, coordinated initiatives to prevent sexual harassment across the biomedical research enterprise.

We also wish to highlight policies that apply to the thousands of research institutions that receive funding from NIH.  A question we often hear from the community is why NIH doesn’t automatically terminate funding to all investigators who are accused or found guilty of sexual harassment at the institutions we fund. This is a complex issue.  NIH funding is awarded to institutions, not to individuals.  As a term and condition of a grant award, institutions are required to develop and implement policies and practices that foster a harassment-free environment.   If a principal investigator on an NIH grant is removed from their position or placed on administrative leave, we require the institution to notify NIH before replacing that investigator.  We then have the option to suspend or terminate the grant if the proposed alternative arrangements are not acceptable to NIH. However, we often find in those difficult circumstances that working with the institution and approving an alternative principal investigator preserves the science, and allows other personnel working on the grant, including in some cases the victim of harassment, to continue their research.  Depending on the circumstances, we also can consider enforcement actions such as disallowing costs or suspending the grant.  We also can coordinate with other offices including law enforcement and/or the HHS Office of Inspector General to consider a referral for debarment or suspension.  These policies are highlighted on the anti-sexual harassment webpage. 

Our colleagues at the National Science Foundation (NSF) also are engaged in clarifying their own approach to this issue. Ultimately, these policies should be harmonized across the government.  As co-chair of the National Science and Technology Council Committee on Science, along with NSF Director Dr. France Córdova, I plan to ask the Committee to consider uniform measures that would be most effective in changing the pervasive culture of sexual harassment in science, and fostering a culture of respect for all.  I personally consider addressing this matter to be a high priority for NIH. 

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, National Institutes of Health