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NIH revoked funding from 14 scientists over sexual harassment last year

The agency has faced sharp criticism over its handling of harassment allegations.

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The NIH Campus in Bethesda, MD

The National Institutes of Health investigated allegations of sexual harassment at more than two dozen institutions in 2018.Credit: National Institutes of Health (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) investigated more than two dozen allegations of sexual harassment last year against scientists whose work it supports, the agency said on 28 February.

The NIH ultimately replaced 14 principal investigators (PIs) who had received agency grants, and 21 PIs were disciplined or fired by their employers. Fourteen people were banned from participating in NIH peer-review panels.

The announcement marks the first time that the agency has publicized the number of its grant recipients who were fired or disciplined as a result of harassment findings.

“Sexual harassment damages the careers of those who encounter it, & can leave deep scars & psychological effects that reverberate for a lifetime,” NIH director Francis Collins said in a series of tweets. “We are sorry that it has taken so long to acknowledge and address the climate and culture that has caused such harm.”

Collins also thanked neurologist BethAnn McLaughlin of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who led a campaign criticizing the NIH — and Collins in particular — for failing to take action against grant recipients found to have committed sexual harassment. McLaughlin launched an online petition last year asking the NIH to bar scientists who have been found guilty of sexual harassment from receiving agency grants or travel funds, reviewing grant applications or receiving NIH awards.

The NIH subsequently announced in September 2018 that it would create a centralized system for reporting harassment by the agency’s employees. But it has not made significant changes to its policies for addressing harassment by grant recipients. By contrast, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced last year that institutions that receive NSF grants must notify the agency of any finding related to harassment by PIs or co-PIs.

Collins said that a special independent advisory group would present its recommendations for NIH anti-harassment policies at its next meeting in June.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00753-2
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