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Big changes needed to fight harassment, group tells US biomedical agency

Advisory panel says US National Institutes of Health should treat sexual harassment more seriously and do more to help affected researchers.

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Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health

Francis Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health, has been critcized for moving too slowly to address sexual harassment.Credit: Chris Kleponis/CNP/AdMedia

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) should make sweeping changes to how it funds research as part of its efforts to reduce sexual harassment in science, a working group advising the agency on the issue said on 13 June.

The NIH should treat sexual misconduct as seriously as research misconduct, the group told agency director Francis Collins and his top advisers at a meeting in Bethesda, Maryland. The panel also wants the NIH to require all scientists receiving agency grants to certify that they have not violated their institution’s code of conduct, and to establish programmes to help researchers affected by harassment re-enter the scientific workforce.

Some provisions in the working group’s wide-ranging plan, which it presented at a meeting of the NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director in Bethesda, Maryland, are already proving controversial. For example, the panel recommends asking grant recipients about their conduct over the previous seven years. But panel members “weren’t able to answer how or why” they settled on a seven-year window, says Juan Pablo Ruiz, a stem-cell biologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Collins said that he welcomed the boldness of the recommendations. “They were not going to be shy,” he said of the working group’s members, who are set to deliver their final report to the agency in December.

The NIH director established the working group last December in response to criticism that his agency has moved too slowly to address harassment by its grant recipients, especially when compared to the US National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF last year put in place rules that require research institutions to notify it of any findings related to sexual harassment by any scientist with an agency grant.

Changing culture

Many of the NIH working group’s recommendations seek to address the power differential between senior scientists and more junior researchers, including graduate students. The panel wants the NIH to create more opportunities for junior scientists to receive funding independent of their supervisors or mentors.

Such steps could prove especially important for international students, whose visas are dependent on their continued employment with a specific mentor. This makes them especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, the working group said.

“If trainees are free to move [to different labs], that will change the behaviour of investigators,” said the group’s co-chair, Kristina Johnson, who is chancellor of the State University of New York. “It would lessen the influence of one person who may be a bad actor.”

Other recommendations lay out a strict system for reporting allegations of harassment by scientists with NIH funding. One major change would be the timing of such reports: institutions would be required to notify the NIH within one week of beginning an investigation into a harassment complaint. The agency’s current rules require institutions to report only when a finding has resulted in disciplinary action, such as termination of a researcher’s employment.

The proposal would also require institutions to tell the NIH when they reach legal settlements related to harassment allegations — even if those settlements include non-disclosure agreements.

Roberta Diaz Brinton, a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says it is clear that the NIH working group understands how the culture of science enables harassment. Science “can be the Wild West sometimes”, she says, and its standards of professional conduct lag behind those of other fields.

The NIH is still trying to get a handle on the scope of the harassment problem among the scientists whose work it supports. The number of allegations of harassment by recipients of NIH grants, and subsequent agency investigations, has spiked this year, said Carrie Wolinetz, the agency’s associate director for science policy and co-chair of the sexual-harassment working group.

The agency reviewed 28 harassment cases involving its grant recipients last year, Wolinetz said, and surpassed that in the first 5 months of 2019 by reviewing 31 cases, with more under way. As a result of these investigations, the agency removed 14 principal investigators from NIH-funded projects last year, and 21 were punished by their home institutions. This year, according to Wolinetz, the NIH has removed 5 principal investigators from grants and banned 19 researchers from reviewing grant applications.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01886-0

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