Combating sexual harassment

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Science  19 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6497, pp. 1291
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd2644

Sexual harassment, including gender harassment, presents an unacceptable barrier that prevents women from achieving their rightful place in science, and robs society and the scientific enterprise of diverse and critical talent. As the largest single funder of biomedical research in the world, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) bears a responsibility to take action to put an end to this behavior. In 2019, the NIH began to bolster its policies and practices to address and prevent sexual harassment. This included new communication channels to inform the agency of instances of sexual harassment related to NIH-funded research. This week, the NIH announces a change that will hold grantee institutions and investigators accountable for this misconduct, to further foster a culture whereby sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviors are not tolerated in the research and training environment.

Last year, an Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of the NIH presented a report and recommendations to end sexual harassment. A major theme of this report was the need for increased transparency and accountability in the reporting of professional misconduct, especially sexual harassment. The cases of sexual harassment that surfaced in the wake of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) 2018 report highlighted a substantial gap in the NIH's oversight of the research enterprise: There was no straightforward mechanism for the agency to learn of sexual harassment or other misconduct taking place at grantee institutions in the context of NIH-funded research. It was not uncommon for the NIH to discover such cases through the media, amid rightful public outcry. Holding institutions and investigators accountable for this behavior was challenging.

Over the past year, the NIH has established communication channels for anyone—institutions, targets of harassment, bystanders—to inform the agency about instances when sexual harassment compromised the conduct of an NIH-funded project at a grantee institution. Although voluntary provision of information is important and has improved awareness of, and increased NIH actions on, sexual harassment cases, it does not fully cover issues related to the required reporting of a change in principal investigator (PI) or the transfer of a grant by an NIH grantee institution. Two important areas required more attention: differentiating between instances where an institution removed a PI from a grant because of findings or concerns of sexual harassment from other reasons (such as medical leave or job change); and preventing “passing the harasser,” in which a scientist who changed institutions could evade the consequences of findings of sexual harassment.

To close these gaps, the NIH has issued new guidance to grantees that sets clear expectations for reporting to the NIH when a grantee institution has a finding of sexual harassment of a PI named on an NIH grant. The notice also makes it clear that the NIH expects its grant recipients who request changes in either investigators or movement of a grant to a new recipient institution to promptly inform the agency, whether changes are related to concerns about safety and/or work environments (e.g., because of concerns about harassment, bullying, retaliation, or hostile working conditions) (see https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-20-124.html). This includes situations where a PI, or other senior personnel, are removed from a grant during the investigation of a serious allegation. The NIH will use such information in making decisions related to grant funding, including putting into place appropriate institutional oversight mechanisms or remedies, or deciding whether to grant institutional requests about personnel on grant awards, thus connecting information to direct consequences. This guidance should also unmask NIH-funded harassers who seek to change institutions without revealing their track record, whether the investigator seeks to take an existing grant to a new institution or leaves an existing grant behind for a new PI to take it over. These questions would have to be answered and would reveal any past misconduct to the new institution.

The NASEM report noted that risk factors for climates and cultures that fomented sexual harassment included both the perception that reports of sexual harassment would be ignored and the perception that there would be no consequence for investigators. It is our hope that this new guidance sends a clear message to dispel those perceptions.

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