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NIH’s new sexual-harassment rules are still too weak, say critics

The agency has outlined actions it may take to deal with bullies and harassers, but it still relies on universities to report bad behaviour.

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Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins

NIH director Francis Collins has been criticised for not moving faster to strengthen the agency’s policies against harassment.Credit: Andrew Harnik/Getty

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) this month published new guidelines for tracking sexual-harassment complaints involving scientists funded by the agency. On 24 June, it described the actions it will take when alerted to reports of unsafe behaviour, including restricting scientists from peer-review panels, holding back pending grants and refusing university requests to transfer funding to other institutions in cases where a harasser changes jobs.

Advocates who have campaigned for changes at the US$41-billion biomedical-research agency say the adjustments are necessary, but are still weaker than rules issued by other funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Measures introduced on 11 June say that universities must inform the NIH when major changes are made to a grant owing to an investigation about scientists creating an unsafe work environment. “We have specifically defined that as including harassment, bullying, sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour,” says Carrie Wolinetz, NIH associate director for science policy.

The NIH began collecting information about sexual-harassment investigations at the institutions it funds in 2019. But ahead of the June announcement, disclosures had been voluntary. According to NIH officials, the new measures put harassment on the same level as research misconduct, fraud, issues of foreign influence and violations of peer-review integrity.

Critics say that the policy still relies too heavily on universities, who might be disinclined to report bad behaviour to the agency that funds them, and that a raft of steps must follow to change the status quo.

It “assumes good faith on the part of the institutions”, says BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist and founder of the nonprofit group MeTooSTEM. “What an absurd and insulting notion.”

Others are awaiting the agency’s next play. “This guidance is a good start, but there is much more that needs to be done,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University in New York City, who was part of a working group convened by the NIH to examine its policies and suggest ways the agency could improve.

Changes and challenges

Agencies and institutions in the United States have begun making changes after acknowledging the scope and harm of sexual harassment in science. A 2018 report by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington DC found that incidents of harassment are rampant, that such behavior pushes talented researchers out of science, and that university and federal policies for keeping it in check are lacking.

In a June presentation to a panel of advisers to the NIH director, Wolinetz said that the NIH has received information about 115 cases of sexual harassment in 2019, and 27 cases in 2020 as of 8 June, from 71 institutions altogether. This year, it has removed 24 people from peer-review committees so far. In 2019, it removed 64.

According to the information provided to the NIH only 14 principal investigators have been removed from grants so far, in part because investigations at their institutions are ongoing. But even in cases where there have been findings of harassment, some institutions have pushed back against removing the harassers, arguing to keep the funding in place after the offender has been disciplined. “We are starting to see people, upsettingly, try to game the system a little bit,” Wolinetz says.

Alysha Dicke, a member of the NIH’s working group, is concerned this pattern will continue if the NIH is not more transparent about affected universities and grants, and about what constitutes reportable behavior. “I think it’s important for NIH to point out how institutions are not responding as intended/desired, as it will likely be even more difficult to change some of the undesirable institutional behavior if it’s never called out,” she wrote in an e-mail to Nature.

The new guidance won’t provide a comprehensive view of harassment at funded institutions. The NIH requests that universities report, “concerns” about scientists that have led to changes in grants — including pending investigations. But lawyer Kristina Larsen is sceptical that many institutions will report anything other than the findings of completed investigations — which only rarely occur. Larsen was an administrator at the University of California, San Diego, before she began representing people who filed sexual-harassment complaints. “I don’t think it’s realistic,” she says.

Other funding agencies in the United States have stronger rules. The NSF, for example, in 2018 began requiring universities to report findings that an NSF-funded scientist committed sexual harassment within ten business days. NASA adopted similar rules in March. But the NIH rules require reporting only when the status of a grant changes. Wolinetz says that’s because the NIH does not have the authority to ask institutions to report investigations or their results outside of the grant-update cycle.

“The NSF has direct oversight of civil-rights violations at NSF-funded organizations, and NIH does not,” Wolinetz says. “It does present some legal limitations in what we’re able to do.”

Nature 583, 21 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01921-5

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