December 12, 2019

Creating meaningful reforms to end sexual harassment in science

Ending sexual harassment in science is a major priority for NIH leadership. We expressed our commitment to this issue in September 2018 and updated the community on our efforts in February 2019, including the establishment of a Working Group on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment as part of my Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD). I am grateful to the members of this working group, who have been passionate and thoughtful in developing ways to approach this difficult and often contentious issue. The charge asked them to be bold, and not to constrain their recommendations based on the difficulty or complexity of implementation. Today, after months of intense meetings that included discussions and listening sessions with individuals targeted by sexual harassment, the working group delivered their report to the ACD. The ACD advised me to accept it. I am supportive of these solid recommendations. NIH will make every effort to adhere to the vision of the working group by seeking to implement the recommendations provided. We will work with other federal agencies, such as the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR), and explore policymaking options in order to implement some of these recommendations.

Based, in part, on insights provided by the interim report that the working group presented at the June 12–13, 2019, ACD meeting, I’m pleased to say that NIH is well on its way to implementing several of the recommendations, including:

  • NIH has developed a means for individuals working on NIH-funded projects who believe their rights to a safe working environment have been violated to contact NIH directly. Information can be found on the NIH Anti-Sexual Harassment and For NIH Awardee Organizations websites. It’s working. To date, we’ve received 105 notifications, which automatically initiates an inquiry by the NIH Office of Extramural Research with the grantee institution, and has resulted in replacement of PIs on grants by institutions and enhanced grants oversight.
  • NIH has established and will soon publicize clear agency standard operating procedures that outline the steps NIH takes when a grantee institution or an individual at a grantee institution notifies NIH.

There are several other recommendations that NIH expects to implement over the next year, with the following plans:

  • Enhancing safety at conferences that receive NIH funding, directly or indirectly, through conference codes of professional conduct, and advertising the NIH and OCR contact information.
  • Creating new incentives and funding opportunities to help individuals who have experienced disruptions of research projects, including those related to sexual harassment, to remain in or to reenter the biomedical workforce.
  • Supporting a range of research to inform policies, procedures, training, and other measures that foster respect, civility, and safety.

Several working group recommendations would require new and modified funding mechanisms, and thus will take additional work to implement — but we will pursue these assiduously. That includes programs to support individuals through transition periods (bridge funding), help them reintegrate into the biomedical workforce (potential for modification to existing mechanisms similar for family leave), structure awards to address the power dynamic that puts trainees at high risk, or incentivize grantee institutions to rethink systems to diversify their leadership.

As noted, some recommendations will require NIH to explore policymaking options, and/or work with other government agencies, such as OCR, to implement, such as:

  • Requiring institutions to mandate PIs and key personnel named on NIH grants to attest that they have not been found to have violated their institution’s code of professional conduct, including having a finding of sexual harassment.
  • Requiring grantee institutions to inform NIH of a harassment investigation involving a PI or key personnel named on a grant award, including allowing NIH to be involved in the selection of a replacement PI while the investigation is underway.
  • Creating a parallel process for managing professional misconduct, including sexual harassment, as seriously as research misconduct.
  • Requiring grantee institutions to mandate anti-sexual harassment training for all institutional staff, on the same scale as training for responsible conduct of research.

Pursuing most of these recommendations will require a partnership with our grantee institutions to take the necessary actions. NIH has taken extensive actions as an employer to set the example for the broader community by implementing a comprehensive anti-harassment program for the NIH workforce, which are outlined on the NIH Anti-Sexual Harassment webpage for NIH staff.

Science thrives in safe, diverse, and inclusive research environments, and sexual harassment goes against the very core of what NIH and the institutions we fund represent. Ensuring a culture where we are maximizing talent at all levels is at the heart of the NIH mission to improve human lives. This report lays out a framework to make that culture a reality. We are grateful for the members of the working group for putting forward such a clear vision.

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