February 28, 2019

Update on NIH’s efforts to address sexual harassment in science

As the NIH Director stated in September, 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.

Victims of harassment know this all too well. Sexual harassment does not just damage the careers of those who have encountered it, it can leave deep scars and psychological effects that reverberate for a lifetime. The reports of scientists and students shared through the #MeTooSTEM movement portray a heartbreaking story of opportunities lost, pain suffered, and a systemic failure to protect and defend. To all those who have endured these experiences, we are sorry that it has taken so long to acknowledge and address the climate and culture that has caused such harm. The National Academies report on sexual harassment of women in science found that “federal agencies may be perpetuating the problem of sexual harassment.” We are concerned that NIH has been part of the problem.  We are determined to become part of the solution.

This month, the Working Group of the Advisory Council to the Director (ACD) on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment met for the first time and heard from a wide-range of experts and perspectives, including Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin, whose leadership of the #MeTooSTEM movement has provided a voice for victims of harassment. We have heard similar, harrowing accounts from scientists in the NIH intramural program during meetings of the NIH Anti-Harassment Committee. These conversations have made it abundantly clear that NIH needs to do better in tackling the underlying culture that enables sexual harassment to take place, admit our contributions to perpetuating this culture, and elevate the seriousness with which the agency takes this issue through our actions.

The discussions of the ACD Working Group, who will report interim recommendations in June and provide a final report and recommendations to the ACD in December, centered around a number of themes that were similar to those identified by our internal Anti-Harassment Committee. As the senior leadership of NIH, we are taking  actions including those listed below, and we look forward to receiving the ACD recommendations and other input to strengthen our efforts:

  • Demonstrating accountability and transparency: We want to send a clear message to the institutions we fund and researchers who lead the research that sexual harassment is unacceptable. Discussions from both the NIH Anti-Harassment Committee and the ACD Working Group strongly endorsed an ethos of transparency and accountability to demonstrate the agency’s serious commitment to addressing harassment and deterring future inappropriate behavior. To bolster that transparency and accountability, we want to be clear that NIH has not and will not just look the other way when accusations come to our attention. In 2018, NIH followed up on sexual harassment-related concerns at more than two dozen institutions resulting in the replacement of 14 principal investigators named on NIH grant awards, disciplinary actions taken by awardee institutions against 21 principal investigators including termination of employment, and removal of 14 individuals from peer review. Over that same time period, NIH conducted administrative inquiries into 35 allegations of a sexual nature by NIH staff (both federal employees and government contractors). While some of these incidents remain under review, formal disciplinary actions ranging from reprimand to termination of employment were taken against 10 staff members, and informal disciplinary actions, including counseling/training and cease and desist warnings, were taken against another 10 staff members.

    We recognize these numbers seem small compared to the disheartening incidence of sexual harassment described in the recent National Academies report, but we are continuing to expand our outreach to the extramural community to bring these concerns to our attention, and have enhanced our internal systems to act on all allegations of sexual harassment.
  • Clarifying expectations for institutions and investigators to ensure a safe workplace and inform the agency: If a principal investigator or other key personnel named on an NIH grant award is no longer able to fulfill their obligations to conduct research because they are under investigation or have been removed from the workplace because of sexual harassment concerns, NIH requires institutions to notify the agency of this change. The ACD Working Group discussions revealed that the requirement and appropriate timeline to notify NIH of changes in the status of key personnel named on an NIH grant award is unclear in the current guidance.

    Those discussions, and ultimately the ACD’s recommendations, will help inform further actions, including clarifications in our guidance. In the meantime, NIH will provide written communication to the leaders of all NIH-funded and applicant institutions outlining NIH’s expectations relating to preventing and addressing sexual harassment, including the expectation that awarded institutions have implemented policies and practices that foster a harassment-free environment; maintain clear, unambiguous professional codes of conduct; ensure employees are fully aware and regularly reminded of applicable laws, regulations, policies, and codes of conduct; provide an accessible, effective, and easy process to report sexual harassment, and protection from retaliation; and respond promptly to allegations to ensure the immediate safety for all involved, investigate the allegations, and take appropriate sanctions.
  • Providing clear channels of communication to NIH: We can and will take action if there are concerns that sexual harassment is affecting NIH-funded research. For concerns related to NIH-funded research, an email can be sent to GranteeHarassment@od.nih.gov. We are working to create additional channels intended for confidential sharing of such information and hope to make those available in the next several weeks. While this communication does not constitute or substitute for a report of sexual harassment for legal action or investigation, NIH  will follow up with the relevant applicant/grantee institution on all concerns related to NIH-funded research. NIH also strongly encourages people to report allegations of sexual harassment or assault to the appropriate authorities, which may include your local police department or your organization/institution equal employment opportunity (EEO) or human resources offices.  Individuals may contact the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to obtain additional information and file a complaint. Please see NIH’s Anti-Sexual Harassment website for other information and resources.
  • Listening to victims and survivors of sexual harassment and incorporating their perspectives into future actions: Just as patients remind us every day why medical research is about real people, we cannot forget the intensely personal impact of sexual harassment. Those people whose careers or lives have been derailed by sexual harassment provide a critical voice in shaping the agency’s next steps in helping them re-enter the research workforce and reminding the entire research enterprise of the urgent need for culture change. NIH leadership, the NIH Anti-Harassment Committee, and the ACD Working Group are committed to working with scientists affected by sexual harassment and gender discrimination and will be planning listening sessions to provide a forum for input on proposed recommendations to the ACD.

These steps are only the beginning and are not meant to usurp the charge of the ACD Working Group, which will result in concrete recommendations to the ACD, or the continuing efforts of the internal NIH Anti-Harassment Committee. There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, and we are confident that these two groups, with the input of all affected communities, will provide a roadmap for meaningful and sustainable culture change.  

We can do better. We must do better.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., Director

Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., Principal Deputy Director and Chair, NIH Anti-Harassment Committee

Carrie D. Wolinetz, Ph.D., Acting Chief of Staff, Associate Director for Science Policy, and Co-Chair ACD WG on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment

Michael S. Lauer, M.D., Deputy Director for Extramural Research

Michael M. Gottesman, M.D., Deputy Director for Intramural Research

Hannah A. Valantine, M.D., Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity

Alfred C. Johnson, Ph.D., Deputy Director for Management

National Institutes of Health