NIH gains new power to police sexual harassment

The National Institutes of Health announced this week that—at the direction of Congress—it is tightening rules for reporting sexual and workplace harassment by NIH-funded investigators. Institutions will now be legally required to tell NIH if a grantee has been disciplined because of harassment findings.

NIH calls the policy a “major step” to close loopholes that have allowed institutions to hide harassment cases from the agency. “There’s no question that we’re going to be hearing about cases that we either would not have heard about at all, or only after a substantial delay,” says NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Michael Lauer.

Observers welcome the law, but they note that NIH’s reporting requirements still fall short of those at the National Science Foundation (NSF). That could leave the agency in the dark about some ongoing investigations.

NIH has beefed up its sexual harassment rules in response to some high-profile cases and the #MeTooSTEM movement. Institutions need NIH approval to change the principal investigator (PI) or other personnel on a grant, or to transfer the grant to another institution, and in 2020 the agency asked to be informed if such a change was related to harassment concerns. In the past 4 years, in response to 112 harassment findings, the agency has worked with leading institutions to remove 92 individuals from NIH grants.

NIH now says that reporting rule lacked teeth, however. Institutions were only told they “should” report harassment, NIH acting Director Lawrence Tabak explained in a statement; NIH lacked authority to require that they do so. “This limited NIH’s awareness” of harassment and its “ability to take necessary action,” Tabak wrote.

Now, thanks to a provision Congress added to NIH’s 2022 spending legislation, reporting harassment will be mandatory. In addition, the trigger for reporting is not just a change in grant personnel, but any disciplinary action. As of 9 July, institutions must inform NIH within 30 days if key grant personnel “are removed from their position or are otherwise disciplined due to concerns about harassment, bullying, retaliation, or hostile working conditions,” the agency announced in a 10 May notice.

Institutions must use an online form to detail the case, including any allegations or concerns, and actions it took in response. NIH can then take additional steps, such as replacing personnel or ending the grant. And if institutions ignore the new requirement, NIH can even suspend further awards to the institution.

NIH’s new policy still falls short of NSF’s in that the foundation requires reporting of any “administrative action” related to a harassment finding or investigation. That could include actions that aren’t disciplinary, such as barring a PI from teaching while an investigation is underway.

Lauer, however, says he believes the new policy will not allow genuine grantee misbehavior to be swept under the rug. “When the concerns are so serious that a person is put on leave, then we do know about that,” he says. Allegations result in formal findings only about 25% to 30% of the time, he adds. In “a number of cases,” investigators find “no wrongdoing.”

NIH also hears about investigations through victims and others who contact the agency, notes Heather Pierce, senior director for science policy and regulatory counsel for the Association of American Medical Colleges. Pierce says although the phrase “otherwise disciplined” needs clarification, overall the new policy “is a good, helpful, and clear step in what must be reported.”

Some observers, however, want NIH to go further by requiring institutions to inform the agency when a harassment investigation begins, before any determination of guilt—as federal rules now require for research misconduct. Developing a “parallel process,” including such notification, was a key recommendation in a 2019 report from an NIH working group on sexual harassment, notes molecular biologist Carol Greider of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was a member of the committee.

Virologist Angela Rasmussen of the University of Saskatchewan, who also served on that committee, endorses the idea. “I understand the concerns about due process,” she says. But in cases involving high-profile faculty, she says, institutions are already disinclined to produce findings or take disciplinary action, and the new policy could push them further to “shield those who have committed misconduct.” For that reason, she says, “It’s important they [NIH officials] know about investigations.”

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