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.
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.