May 10, 2022

Congress strengthens NIH’s ability to address harassment in NIH-funded activities

Ensuring a safe workplace where both people and science can thrive has long been the goal of NIH policies on addressing harassment. However, a 2018 National Academies report found “no evidence that current policies, procedures, and approaches have significantly reduced sexual harassment in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine.” The report also found that a culture of harassment with persistent microaggressions is driving women away from science. It was crystal clear that NIH and other federal agencies needed to do more to end the culture of harassment and ensure women and other groups their rightful place in science.

Spurred by the report, NIH elevated efforts to end sexual harassment in biomedical research as a major priority for the agency. Guided by recommendations from the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director, NIH implemented a number of changes aimed at ending harassment in all its forms – within the agency’s workforce, and at the institutions we fund. These efforts focused on three primary areas: 1) demonstrating accountability and transparency, 2) clarifying NIH’s expectations that funded institutions ensure a safe workplace free of harassment, and 3) establishing clear channels of communication to NIH for reporting. Toward that end, NIH established a dedicated phone line and web form for anybody to report an allegation of harassment or inappropriate behavior directly to NIH. Between 2018-2022, NIH worked with funded institutions on 112 confirmed findings of harassment, resulting in institutions removing 92 individuals from NIH grants and in other actions for the remaining cases.

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. That changes today.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of members of Congress, NIH is implementing a general provision in the 2022 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 117-103) that mandates the NIH Director to require NIH-funded institutions to report to the NIH “when individuals identified as 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.” This provision not only enables mandatory reporting to NIH of removals and disciplinary actions, but it also ensures that NIH is made aware when the reason for the actions is concerns of harassment. Effective July 8, 2022, NIH is requiring notification by the Authorized Organization Representative at NIH-funded institutions within 30 days of the removal or disciplinary action that must be submitted to NIH via this webform. Details of this new NIH requirement is posted on this NIH Grants and Funding webpage on supporting a safe and respectful workplace at institutions that receive NIH funding and the NIH Anti-Sexual Harassment website.

When a funded institution reports harassment to NIH, NIH will continue to work with the grantee organization, as well as other federal agencies as required, to determine what actions are appropriate. NIH actions may include approving the institution’s substitution or removal of personnel from an NIH grant, restricting award funding, and where neither of these options is available or adequate, suspending or terminating the grant award. Importantly, individuals can continue to report allegations directly to NIH.

No one should ever have to endure harassment to contribute to biomedical research. Wherever NIH research activities take place, our priority will always be to do what we can to eliminate harassment. The passage of this bill into law is an important milestone in support of that vital commitment. I want to thank all those affected by harassment who shared their stories with NIH, provided input on our efforts to strengthen our policies and practices, and held NIH accountable for addressing harassment.

Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Acting Director, NIH