Washington Update

NIH Issues Final Reports on Workplace Climate and Sexual Harassment

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) received final reports on the 2019 NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey and from the Working Group on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment. Both items, presented to the ACD during its Dec. 12-13 meeting, highlight the pernicious effects of sexual harassment and provided action items as next steps for implementation.

One in five respondents to the NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey reported at least one incident of sexual harassment in the past 12 months. The most vulnerable populations were sexual and gender minorities, trainees, individuals with disabilities, individuals aged 18-44 years, and those who are not married. Of survey respondents who reported sexual harassment, over half did not talk to anyone about their experiences. Those who did primarily spoke to co-workers.

With information gained from this data, NIH plans to continue anti-harassment awareness education, track and publicize sanctions, target prevention programs to vulnerable groups, promote resources for reporting and obtaining supportive counseling, and train supervisors and managers to address incivility and to lead equitably. The survey instrument will be made available for extramural use, likely early in 2020.

Organized into four themes, the final report from the ACD Working Group on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment establishes a framework for addressing and eradicating inappropriate behaviors, including sexual harassment, from research environments. Recommendations highlight potential actions for stakeholders including NIH, external institutions, and scientific societies.

The first theme seeks to increase transparency and accountability in the reporting of professional misconduct, especially sexual harassment. Treating professional misconduct as seriously as research misconduct – a suggestion proposed by FASEB in its feedback to the working group earlier this year – is emphasized in this theme. Specific recommendations include requiring institutions to report findings of an NIH-funded investigator’s code of conduct violation to NIH within two weeks. Furthermore, when there is a change in an investigator’s status due to professional misconduct, this information should be provided to NIH.

Additional recommendations within this theme include establishing a hotline and web-based form for reporting sexual harassment, including anonymous reports; developing standard operating procedures to respond to reports or findings of professional misconduct; and requiring principal investigators and key grant personnel to attest that they have not violated their institutions’ code of conduct.

Establishing restorative justice mechanisms for those affected by harassment is the second theme of the report. Recommendations within this theme include creating funding mechanisms for targets and other affected individuals to restore careers; developing bridge funding for targets and affected individuals who lose salary support; and establishing safe-harbor laboratories or research groups for affected individuals to work in a vetted welcoming and supportive environment. These and other recommendations within this theme shift the narrative away from the institution and provide support to individuals affected by professional misconduct.

Male-dominated hierarchical power structures within academic science, engineering, and medicine programs pose clear risk factors for sexual harassment. Thus the third theme focuses on strategies to bolster the safety, diversity, and inclusivity of research and training environments. The theme’s first recommendation attempts to address power imbalance by recommending that mechanisms be developed to give research awards directly to trainees without involvement of a specific advisor.

Other recommendations include requiring grantee institutions to conduct anti-sexual harassment training and to establish specific expectations and requirements for maintaining a safe training and research environment. Another recommendation is that NIH fund research on effective interventions to prevent sexual harassment in a variety of climates and organization types.

Fostering system-wide cultural changes is the focus of the final theme. Proposed strategies include creating funding strategies that do not continue propagating male-dominated power structures; incentivizing extramural recognition and support of diversity and inclusion; wide-scale data collection about adverse work environments; and examining the apprenticeship training system as the status quo given that this structure carries hallmarks of risk factors for professional misconduct.

The efforts of the Working Group were applauded by ACD members, who voted to unanimously approve the report. NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, highlighted the importance of both the report and the survey in furthering the agency’s efforts to foster safe and inclusive work environments.