Washington Update

NIH Leadership Issues Statement on Sexual Harassment; FASEB Expresses Privacy Concerns

By: Yvette Seger
Thursday, March 14, 2019

On February 28, NIH leadership issued an update on the agency’s efforts to address sexual harassment in science.

The statement — co-signed by NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, and his leadership team — opened with an acknowledgment of the negative impacts of gender and sexual harassment on careers and well-being. In December, Dr. Collins established a Working Group of the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment, charged with assessing current sexual harassment policies and procedures and identifying interventions to foster safe and inclusive research environments. This Working Group is expected to provide an interim report to the ACD in June, with a final report and recommendations to follow in December.

In the meantime, the February 28 update indicated several immediate steps to be taken by the agency. These include enhanced transparency of actions taken in response to harassment reports involving NIH-funded investigators; clarifying expectations for institutions receiving NIH support to report findings and determinations of harassment; and establishing a designated email address for individuals to report concerns about harassing behavior directly to NIH.

In a March 4 letter, FASEB praised the agency’s recognition of the need for culture change to eliminate harassing behaviors and the key role of NIH in promoting these changes. But the Federation expressed concerns about the email mechanism for sharing information or initiating a complaint. FASEB acknowledged that this mechanism will aid NIH in being aware of and responding to potential instances of harassment, but noted the lack of details regarding the privacy of those choosing this avenue, and how this might deter its use.

FASEB strongly encouraged NIH to supplement the work of the ACD Working Group by actively engaging with the stakeholder community, further clarifying reporting strategies to ensure appropriate privacy protections.