How you know NIH officialdom is not being honest with you

Mar 10 2016 Published by under Anger, Fixing the NIH

Janet Stemwedel managed to get Michael Lauer, current head of the Office of Extramural Research on the horn to explain his commitment to stamping out sexual harassment in science. This followed from a letter Lauer authored with Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity Hannah Valantine, and NIH Director Francis S. Collins.

...we at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are deeply concerned about sexual harassment in science (Nature 529, 255; 2016). With the help of colleagues in government, academia and the private sector, the NIH aims to identify the steps necessary to end this in all NIH-supported research workplaces and scientific meetings.

Very nice sentiment. The letter continues:

Over the next few weeks to months, we plan to work with governmental, academic and private-sector colleagues to identify potential steps to translating our expectations into reality. An important first step will be to gather as much data as possible to more fully understand the nature and extent of sexual harassment among scientists. These data should guide us in determining what kinds of policy and procedure are most likely to help. We will also work to determine what levers are already available to influential stakeholders — us as funders, as well as university administrators and departments, journal editors, and organizers and hosts of scientific meetings.

That was about it. You can see the elements that had Stemwedel wishing for more detail.

..the authors don’t mention such existing sources of data. This makes it hard for readers to know whether they think this is not enough data (and if so, how much more data they think is needed), or whether they think this is the wrong kind of data (and if so, what the right kind of data would be).

She's referring to data published by Clancy, Nelson, Rutherford and Hinde (2014), from the perspective of field scientists. Of course, there are also copious news reports, some highly salient, of anecdata in support of the idea that academia is plagued by sexual harassers. One might observe that we are almost at a tipping point where nobody who has any sense need hide behind a smokescreen of "yeah but where are the data showing this is a problem".

Stemwedel is inclined to view the following statement she elicited from Lauer charitably.

Of the Clancy et al. paper, Lauer told me, “I find those numbers quite concerning, but that was research focused on field work. Our efforts at NIH need to be focused on biomedical researchers.”

I am not inclined to view this charitably. This is a classic bureaucrat strategy to kick the can down the road and hope that you will forget, in time, that they have in fact done nothing to address the fundamental issues at hand. Remember the Ginther study showing disparity of African-American PI's grant funding chances? That was in 2011. Has anything been done to show that grant outcomes have been equalized? No. Remember what the first response was? "We need to study the root causes, get some more data, not jump to any hasty conclusions here" was the flavor of it.

Just like Lauer's response to Janet's queries.

And if that wasn't enough, Lauer followed it up with another classic strategy. Diffuse the blame and responsibility so that when NIH fails to do anything about sexual harassment, they can point to those other guys over there as being the problem. The favorite diffusion strategy is to blame "stakeholders".

This was one reason Lauer thought there was a need for more data on sexual harassment among biomedical researchers, to better understand the problem within the particular complex system made up of biomedical scientists, funders, university administrators and departments, scientific journals and their editors, the organizers and hosts of scientific meetings. This complexity – and the involvement of many stakeholders besides NIH – creates a need for the stakeholders to work together to address sexual harassment. ”NIH doesn’t want to act in isolation,” Lauer noted. ”We need to be working with other stakeholders to end this problem.”

This is another way you can tell when NIH officialdom is lying. When they pretend not to understand their immense power amongst all of these alleged stakeholders.

Remember when prior NIH Director Zerhouni decided to get serious about the disparity of the grants submitted by younger/newer scientists? They created the ESI designation and immediately mandated equivalent outcome by naked, heavy-handed quota affirmative action. There was no whinging about "stakeholder" input. There was no years-long generation of new data to prove the root cause of the disparity. There was no bluster about "how dare we accuse study section members of being biased against the noobs!". There was no weaseling about needing to talk to people with the right expertise in bias against new investigators. They just acted.

Lauer and Collins need to act now. They need to do what is currently in their power to accomplish to weed out sexual harassment and create a culture in which it is no longer winkingly permitted.

The easy side is the declaration of intolerance. They already have the language in the FOA for the conference grants, as discussed here.

Consistent with Federal civil rights laws, it is expected that organizers of NIH-supported conferences and scientific meetings take steps to maintain a safe and respectful environment for all attendees by providing an environment free from discrimination and harassment, sexual or otherwise.

This can be expanded upon, a little bit, and made a default part of every NIH-associated meeting- from study sections to scientific conferences they support in par to the meetings hosted on the NIH campus. Start every meeting with a declaration of intolerance.

The oversight and punishment for bad behavior part is stickier. Obviously. But here's my continued point, when it comes to the NIH claiming they do not have the power to snap the Universities into line on this, that or the other policy issue.

Nobody, not even the Johns Hopkins University (the biggest recipient of NIH funds, I believe) or the conglomeration of Harvard-related institutes, has a right to NIH grant awards.

The NIH chooses to award grant funds. Each and every time.

The NIH chooses to withhold the award of grant funds despite a peer-review score that would otherwise appear to justify the funding.

It is also the case that the noncompeting interval of funding for a NIH grant is approved each and every year. The movement of a grant from one University to another when the PI has changed jobs has to be approved by the NIH. The substitution of a new PI for the grant at the same University has to be approved by the NIH.

The fact that for the most part the NIH does in fact approve changes in the PI at the same University, changes to a new University to follow the same PI and continue to fund the successive noncompeting years without a lot of fuss does not change the responsibilities of the NIH.

I will note that the NIH can, and does, refuse to fund grants for what appear to be fairly invasive and personally intrusive factors related to the PI in question. The University that requests a change in PI, for example, may have to explain in chapter and verse how Noobie McNewb is great and can in fact handle the project. It may fail, alternately, to convince NIH that Overcommitted O'Stuffins can in fact adequately attend to her sixth concurrent R01/equivalent. Personal excuses for why productivity was crappy in the past few years comes up. POs can question the scientific acumen/capability of a given PI and essentially demand another investigator be added to the project to help out (this happens to noobs).

In my experience hearing about and dealing with such situations over the years, I have never once seen it come down to some data intensive proof or legal standard of validation of the decision.

The NIH holds the cards and gets to demand / do whatever the heck they want.

So.

If Lauer is indeed serious about sexual harassment, there are a few policies he could lay down tomorrow. Without any weaseling or stakeholdering or data generating.

He could demand that anytime there is a request for a change in PI or change in University that there is clear assertion on the part of all parties, the Universities and the PI(s) that there is no ongoing investigation or accusation of sexual harassment. Just like the NIH demands information on other sources of grant support and human/animal subjects protocols, they could demand information on this.

For that matter, the NIH could demand this for any new or noncompeting award.

And they could use the power of their prerogative not to fund grants to make some real changes happen.

Put the NIH grant portfolio at risk at a given University and maybe their economic calculation about who to back in a Title IX complaint would shift.

18 responses so far

  • Tara says:

    Bah, this is all so frustrating. But to Lauer's statement, “I find those numbers quite concerning, but that was research focused on field work. Our efforts at NIH need to be focused on biomedical researchers.” ---Does he truly not realize that NIH FUNDS FIELD WORK TOO? My studies, and many like them, are about half in various field sites (environmental sampling, community sampling, etc.) and half in the lab. I was just on a NIH review panel for grants that are similar in scope (field + lab). So what, only NSF workers doing field work should be protected?

  • Nope says:

    The NIH really does need to do more to combat harassment (and worse) at funded institutions. But finding good sources of data shouldn't be dismissed. It's downright dangerous to say so, but the SAFE 13 study, while it had very important and concerning evidence at its core, is nonetheless flawed in its methods. Surveying harassment and assault from opt-in internet research with snowball recruitment is a recipe to get victims to respond, but non-victims to abstain. I think almost all survey research has this problem.
    I agree that SAFE 13 has important implications about field research, and biomedical science in general. But as a source of raw data, it definitely needs supplementation from other, and more diverse, sources.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Tara- EXCELLENT point and I should not have missed that in my ranting.

    Nope- Why do you feel the NIH must secure unflawed and diverse sourced data before they can put any solutions into practice? Why would this be necessary, say, for them to now require Universities to certify there are no active sexual harassment complaints about a PI before funding a new grant?

  • Nope says:

    drugmonkey - I don't think they need to delay common sense solutions to existing problems while pursuing better data. The action you suggest in that comment seems somewhat reasonable. Wary of "active" rather than "decided". (It's usually appropriate to get a verdict before taking punitive action like denying funding). But I'm sure an appropriate compromise on that issue could be found prior to collecting years of new data. Perhaps something like delaying funding awards until the case is decided, though that creates a powerful incentive to get a non-guilty verdict.

  • youngPD says:

    Thanks, DM, for calling out the NIH here. This is baloney. If the NIH wanted to "fix" sexual harassment at the root, then sure, let's get tons more data. But this shouldn't (at the start) be about "fixing" it. It should be about properly punishing it. I don't need to know all the inner workings explaining why my younger kid bit my older one before punishing him/her, or if kid-biting is really a problem if it only occurs in 0.5% of households. I don't care. The biter gets a time-out.

    But this tactic often works because, as scientists, we are used to this logic. It's what we use when planning experiments/aims. We like that language b/c it "sounds right."

  • drugmonkey says:

    It's usually appropriate to get a verdict before taking punitive action like denying funding

    You are ignoring my points. The NIH frequently denies funding and has the clear mandate/capability to deny funding much more than they do.

    In fact, using "denying" is itself putting a hugely unjustified finger on the scale. Grants are, quite simply, a privilege and not a right. For the PI and for the University.

  • Nope says:

    Regardless of wording, choosing not to fund a grant that would be funded except for an ongoing investigation is a consequence. I am wary of consequences prior to findings of facts, regardless of the nature of the investigation. In part because they are premature, in part because they influence the subsequent findings. The loss of a privilege is a consequence as well, though not as severe as the loss of rights.

    However, I am agreement that the NIH should investigate why PIs change, and should be more aggressive in exercising their right to strip funding.

  • becca says:

    If institutions will be honest with NIH, NIH can tell whether sexual harassment is more or less likely depending on how trainees are funded. As well as a lot of other useful info for determining ideal NIH policy. So yeah, they do need to "talk to stakeholders" and "collect data".

    That said, if they mean what they say, they need to act. DM, I think your first proposal ends up penalizing institutions for *finding* the sexual harassment, which isn't how you want to set things up. Universities already have every PR incentive in the world to cover up sexual harassment. Using the stick of loosing NIH funding will not help trainees.

    Instead, I would set up the rule more like, if someone has even an accusation of sexual harassment, NIH should require the institution ensure there is a backup faculty member to take over if the institution finds the accusation true. And for some responsibilities, like perhaps mentoring undergrads, or coordinating social activities for small NIH funded meetings/workshops/conferences, NIH should ensure there is some kind requirements for specific acts of institutional oversight if there is even a hint of an accusations or concerns.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It is pretty clear to me becca that only the stick will suffice at this point. I understand it incentivizes denial and squelching. But we already see Us doing this. Because they calculate the victims cannot hurt them and the accused perp can. So you need the penalties ramped up to where Universities are scared to get busted for a coverup because it costs them more than the alternative.

  • Banditokat says:

    What a massive crock of shitte from NIH. No one is buying it and Janet (love you) is far too kind in viewing getting someone on the record as progress. This has been in the media non-stop for 3 years. Getting someone on the phone finally for a comment is fuckall. The only progress is laws and money. Wale me up when Title IX findings are public, don't depend on universities to police themselves and one single victim says this is a just and fair process that didn't gut them. Until then, fuck all y'all and your 'savior' shitte.

  • jmz4 says:

    "So you need the penalties ramped up to where Universities are scared to get busted for a coverup because it costs them more than the alternative."
    -The problem is that writing this in bureaucrat without leaving any weasel room is next to impossible. Especially for Universities trained weasels. As long as the harasser suspects the University has their back, they'll think they can sleaze with impunity. And the University will have their back if its going to cost them more money than a ding to their rep would.

    Now, if you want to go punitive without scaring off the university, you make the PI liable for a salary clawback from the date of the proven allegation. Along with a 5-10 ban on further NIH funding. That's enough to make the premeditating harassers wary.
    Then I think you put in a clause that if the University is deemed to have substantially delayed, hindered or obfuscated either the initiation or procession of an independent investigation (say, by Title IX), all the training grants in the department will be re-evaluated with extreme prejudice, as well as any tuition payments and any portion of the indirects claimed for training purposes. This gives the Uni incentive to root it out on their own before it comes to Title IX, but if they don't, their ability to recruit trainees will be compromised, which will also encourage other faculty to keep an eye out for behavior that might hurt their own labs. It is also fair, as it hits them where they have failed, in being a safe space for training scientists.

    I'd also add a proactive approach of evaluating the safety of trainees when renewing T mech grants. They come and interview the trainees, make sure the interviewers ask some questions about these issues.

  • Dusanbe says:

    It's very obvious why NIH is tippy-toeing around this issue, same as the issue of diversity and grant success for URMs. It's because of \(\)\(\). If those scumbag GOP lawmakers even get a whiff that NIH is actually *gasp* doing something remotely connected to social justice, well you can bet there'll be a push to defund NIH. It doesn't excuse the NIH of course, but that's what the higher ups are really afraid of.

  • Dusanbe says:

    Sorry, the keyboard did something funky. I meant to say it's because of money.

  • E rook says:

    I think that JMZ is on to something here. I was thinking that IRBs and IACUCs have non-university members on the committees, to represent the interests of the community/patients/animals, and these bodies hold power over the behavior of PIs when it comes to the treatment of human subjects and animals. But the institutional boards that oversee harassment cases, I think are all faculty and with secretarial duties by an administrator. Therefore the incentive would be to end an investigation as quickly as possible, outcome in favor of the university's bottom line, and so the review board for these complaints would need to be more indepent independent than they currently are with meetings that are open. It's an interesting conundrum, and I think JMZ is on to a potential bureaucratic answer.

    I agree that universities should have zero tolerance, what is the NIH's answer to this without new legislation? The stakeholder question is a total red herring. Other stakeholders mentioned will fall in line with NIH, I have very little doubt.

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  • BKNJ says:

    All, Please see GAO report 16-14 ( released December 2015) where HHS is found to be one agency that does not routinely survey funded institutions regarding compliance with civil rights and title IX issues.

    From the report:
    Two of six agencies GAO reviewed that fund STEM research at universities—
    DOD and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—are not
    conducting required Title IX compliance reviews. Since HHS oversees Title IX
    compliance of National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding recipients, which
    account for the bulk of STEM research grantees, billions of federal research
    dollars may not be subject to potential Title IX oversight.

    In the larger report and investigation, HHS response was that they haven't had many title IX in the last 20 years AND that it is out of their jurisdiction so they defer complaints to US Department of Education. Later in the report Dept of Ed explicitly said they do not handle complaints that go to HHS because there is no formal agreement between Ed and HHS in place.

    Imagine that Lauer, Valantine, and Collins appear to be unaware of HHS pattern of dealing with these issues. So there is no reason to think anything is going to change.

  • K elliott says:

    "No reason ....anything is going to change". Were you expecting differently?. Any successful past precedents?. Just wonder.

  • BKNJ says:

    Not that I am aware of. But I am just now merging into the cynical lane and kinda sad about it.

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