Senator Murray and Representative DeLauro Want to Know What NIH Is Doing About Sexual Harassment

Readers of this blog will not need too much reminder that sexual harassment and sex-based workplace discrimination are very much a problem in academic science. We have seen numerous cases of this sort of academic misconduct reach the national and sometimes international press in the past several years. Indeed, recent discussions on this blog have mentioned the cases of Thomas Jessell and Inder Verma as well as three cases at Dartmouth College.

In these cases, and ones of scientific fraud, I and others have expressed frustration that the NIH does not appear to use what we see as its considerable power of the purse and bully pulpit to discourage future misconduct. My view is that since NIH award is a privilege and not a right, the NIH could do a lot to help their recipient institutions see that taking cases of misconduct more seriously is in their (the recipient institution's) best interest. They could pull the grants associated with any PI who has been convicted of misconduct, instead of allowing the University to appoint a replacement PI. They could refuse to make any new awards or, less dramatically, make any exception pickups if they aren't happy with the way the University has been dealing with misconduct. They could focus on training grants or F-mech fellowships if they see a particular problem in the treatment of trainees. Etc. Lots of room to work since the NIH decides all the time to fund this grant and not that grant for reasons other than the strict order of review.

Well, two Democratic members of Congress have sent a letter (PDF) to NIH Director Francis Collins gently requesting* information on how NIH is addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. And the overall message is in line with the above belief that NIH can and should play a more active role in addressing sexual misconduct and harassment.

As pointed out in a Mike the Mad Biologist's post on this letter, these two Congresspeople have a lot of potential power if the Democrats return to the majority.

are ranking members of committees that oversee NIH funding–and if the Democrats take back the House or Senate, would be the leaders of those committees.

One presumes that the NIH will be motivated to take this seriously and offer up some significant response. Hopefully they can do this by what seems a rather optimistic deadline of 8/17/2018, given the letter was dated 8/06/2018.

The first 6 listed items to which NIH is being asked to response seem mostly to do with the workings of Intramural NIH, both Program and the IRP. Those are of less interest as a dramatic change, important as they are.

Most importantly, the letter puts the NIH squarely on the hook for the way that it ensures that the extramural awardee institutions are behaving. Perhaps obviously, the power of NIH to oversee issues of harassment at all of the Universities, Institutes and companies that they fund is limited. The main point of justification in this letter is the NOT-OD-15-152: Civil Rights Protections in NIH-Supported Research, Programs, Conferences and Other Activities.

To give you a flavor:

Federal civil rights laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, and age in all programs and activities that receive Federal financial assistance, and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs or activities conducted by colleges and universities. These protections apply in all settings where research, educational programs, conferences, and other activities are supported by NIH, and apply to all mechanisms of support (i.e., grant awards, contracts and cooperative agreements). The civil rights laws protect NIH-supported investigators, students, fellows, postdocs, participants in research, and other individuals involved in activities supported by NIH.

The notice then goes on to list several specific statutes, some of which are referenced in footnotes to the letter.
The Murray/DeLauro letter concentrates on the obligation recipient institutions have to file an Assurance of Compliance with the Health and Human Services (NIH's parent organization) Office of Civil Rights and the degree to which NIH exercises oversight on these Assurances.

I think the motivations of Senatory Murray and Rep DeLauro are on full display in this passage (emphasis added).

"It therefore appears that NIH's only role...is confirming...institution has signed, dated, and mailed the compliance document....

This lack of engagement from NIH is particularly unacceptable in light of disturbing news reports that cases of sexual harassment in the academic sciences often involve high profile faculty offenders whose behavior is considered an 'open secret'.

...colleagues may have warned new faculty and students.....but institutions themselves take little to no action."

It is on.

__
*demanding

8 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    The universities will do what they've always done - comply with the letter of the law, hire more admins to oversee these problems, and just get on with the business of milking those sweet indirects. This is exemplified in some of the more recent cases from academia, in which the institutions have made a big deal of saying there were numerous internal investigations which found no policies were violated. Nothing to see here, move right along please.

    They will go through the motions, so as to appear to have addressed the problem, while all along not wishing to piss off the uber-PI who brings in all those lovely grant dollars. And at the end of the day what can NIH actually do? Are they really gonna go back to the university and say "sorry, we've read your report and we don't think it was thorough enough, go back and try again"? No. this will be like ORI and all the other ethics bodies - all talk and no teeth. But, if it allows NIH to tick a box saying they've got that whole harrassment thing fixed, then by all means go ahead and hire all the officers and admins and create a department if it makes you feel good.

  • eeke says:

    "They could pull the grants associated with any PI who has been convicted of misconduct, instead of allowing the University to appoint a replacement PI."

    If I understand this correctly, does this mean that if the NIH discontinues an award to an individual who has been convicted of misconduct, that whistle-blowers or victims of harassment in this person's lab will also be punished? I would think that something like this, if the University could not appoint a new PI (and I'm not sure how that would work), would prevent reporting of misconduct. It would be counter-productive.

    I agree that those who are convicted of misconduct should be denied access to federal (or private) funding, but it should be done in such a way as to protect those who were whistle-blowers or who were not accomplices to the offense.

  • drugmonkey says:

    If I understand this correctly, does this mean that if the NIH discontinues an award to an individual who has been convicted of misconduct, that whistle-blowers or victims of harassment in this person's lab will also be punished?

    This is absolutely one of the main reasons why the University argues it has to keep the funding and let another PI administer it. Would it be counter-productive to pull the funding? Who knows. Right now, universities are already highly motivated to cover everything up and let the victims suffer a great deal of punishment and often disruption/termination of their careers. When labs blow up over a PI's data faking, the trainees are always screwed anyway. So the question is whether NIH is really ready to play hard ball. Give oversight on how a University treats the lab members in the aftermath of pulling a grant for sexual harassment/discrimination/assault. And if the University doesn't behave decently out of their own non-federal funds, hit em with more sanctions.

    I agree that those who are convicted of misconduct should be denied access to federal (or private) funding, but it should be done in such a way as to protect those who were whistle-blowers or who were not accomplices to the offense.

    You are not appreciating that the University is the awardee and this letter is about asking the NIH to ensure those awardees are up to snuff on federal civil rights law.

    Let me take another tack on this. Suppose Professor Creepio is busted for sexual assault and tossed out of the University. Well, there are many of his lab members that are going to be victimized by the loss of their research mentor and paying boss. They will be victimized by his lack of future standing in the field and lowered ability to pull strings for them. Their fellowship and job applications may suffer. Some people that may otherwise have launched on awesome academic careers may be prevented from doing so, entirely because of this thing unrelated to them that their PI did.

    Is this a reason to wring our hands and say we can't bust Professor Creepio because of the damage to everyone in his lab?

    I say no. The goal of punishment is also to have a prevention effect on future misconduct by others and a mitigation of that misconduct when it does occur (by taking it seriously at an earlier stage). And we are at a public understanding right now that our failures to discipline the Professor Creepios of the world because of the collateral damage to the lab, the University, the Party caucus in Congress or the film studio are no longer acceptable bargains given the carnage they leave in their wake.

  • Mclneuro says:

    Yes. You are going to be punished for being in a sexual harassers lab.
    Choose accordingly.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am reasonably sure that most people fated to become embroiled in a lab dissolution are not aware at the start that they are joining the lab of a person that will eventually be booted from the University for sexual misconduct.

  • […] the NIH should more frequently use the power of the purse to change the behavior of Universities. I expressed this recently in the context of a Congressional demand for information from the NIH Director on the NIH oversight […]

  • Anonymous says:

    @Mclneuro: Oh, that's great. Now, in addition to everything else that a woman who finds herself in this situation has to put up with, there will be some a$$hole saying that she should have known better than to join this lab and therefore deserves to get screwed.

  • eeke says:

    I don't think a policy like the one you are suggesting will prevent future misconduct any more than the death penalty has prevented homicide (it hasn't). If anything, you might get a false sense of a decline in misconduct because it will also very strongly prevent reporting of such behavior.

    Is it better to create a climate in which the perps get to keep on what they're doing because of the repercussions on the whistle blowers/lab members/victims that prevents them from reporting, or to have a climate in which someone can, to some degree, safely come forward and identify the perp?

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