Washington Update

NIH Working Group Presents Interim Recommendations to Address Sexual Harassment

By: Yvette Seger
Thursday, June 20, 2019

Last week, the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened for two days to discuss an array of issues: from final recommendations on implementing high risk-high reward research programs to the agency’s efforts to enhance the diversity of funded researchers.

The highlight of day one was discussion of the Working Group on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment’s interim recommendations. Since being established in December 2018, the working group has held two in-person meetings to supplement monthly teleconferences. The most recent meeting on May 16 included a public listening session, where survivors of gender and sexual harassment described the impact of harassing behavior on their professional pursuits and personal well-being.

Four interim recommendations offered immediate actions for updating organizational processes to manage reports of sexual harassment and ensure retention of valuable talent. Throughout their presentation, the working group co-chairs reiterated that the recommendations represented incremental steps toward the ultimate goal of creating a culture in which harassment is not tolerated.

The first recommendation was to treat sexual misconduct in a manner parallel to research misconduct. In addition to indicating the agency’s commitment to fostering harassment-free professional environments, this recommendation would establish clear guidelines for reporting harassment and managing investigations.

Dovetailing on this concept, the second recommendation would require Principal Investigators (PIs) to attest that they have not – and will not – violate their institution’s code of conduct. This recommendation highlights the pivotal the role of PIs and institutions in reporting potential cases of misconduct to the granting organization and generated much discussion, both for the proposed retrospective seven-year timeframe and the limitation to PIs.

It was noted that research misconduct typically carries a three-year ban, with an option for a lifetime ban in the most egregious cases. It was also noted that harassing behaviors could be initiated by any laboratory team member, not just the PI.

The third and fourth recommendations emphasized workforce retention and implementing new strategies to reduce dependence on a single mentor or PI. These recommendations explored the use of existing research supplements to promote re-entry into biomedical and behavioral research careers to provide survivors with independent support so they can continue their research in a new environment and offering new funding mechanisms to reduce the financial dependency between PIs and trainees. Working group members noted that the hierarchical nature of academic research put international scholars in a particularly precarious position, as both their salaries and visas depend on their research affiliation.

In addition to discussing the interim recommendations, ACD members heard a summary of preliminary findings from the NIH Workplace Climate survey. Administered earlier this year to all NIH personnel, including trainees and contractors, this survey found that one in five had experienced some form of harassment – including gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion – in the previous year.

While the experiences of women investigators were well-chronicled in last year’s National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report, these new findings show the need for additional attention to harassment of gender and sexual minorities.

Although final recommendations from both the Working Group and the Workplace Climate survey are not due until later this year, NIH continues to take steps to improve research environments for both intramural and extramural investigators, including a new Web-based platform for sharing information about potential instances of harassment and sexual misconduct.