Archive for the 'Sexual Harassment/Discrimination' category

Of course the NIH can strong-arm Universities if they really want to

I think 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 of the civil rights obligations of their awardee institutions. I have probably expressed this in other contexts as well. Before the invention of the K99/R00 one saw handwringing from the NIH about how Universities wouldn't hire less experienced PhDs and this was the RealProblem accounting for the time-to-first-R01 stat. My observation at the time was that if the NIH was serious they could just ask Universities for their hiring stats and tell ones that didn't hire enough young faculty that they were going to go to the back of the line for any special consideration awards.

This could also apply to occasionally bruited NIH concerns about women, underrepresented groups and other classes of folks not typically treated well by Universities. Exhibit lower than average hiring or promoting of women or URM professors? You go to the back of the special consideration line, sorry.

My suggestions are typically met with "we can't" when I am talking to various NIH Program types and various grades of "they can't" when talking to extramural folks about it.

Of course the NIH can.

They already do.

One very specific case of this is the K99/R00 award when it comes time for administrative review of the R00 phase hiring package. If the NIH finds the proposed hiring package to be deficient they can refuse to award the R00. I have no idea how many times this has been invoked. I have no idea how many times an initial offer of a University has been revised upwards because NIH program balked at the initial offer. But I am confident it has happened at least once. And it is certainly described extensively as a privilege the NIH reserves to itself.

A more general case is the negotiation of award under unusual circumstances. The NIH allows exemptions from the apparent rules all the time. (I say "apparent" because of course NIH operates within the rules at all times. There are just many rules and interpretations of them, I suspect.) They can, and do, refuse to make awards when an original PI is unavailable and the Uni wants to substitute someone else. They cut budgets and funded years. They can insist that other personnel are added to the project before they will fund it. They will pick up some but not other awards with end of year funds based on the overhead rate.

These things have a manipulating effect on awardee institutions. It can force them to make very specific and in some cases costly (startup packages, equipment, space) changes from what they would otherwise have done.

This is NIH using the power of the purse to force awardee institutions to do things. They have this power.

So the only question is whether they choose to use it, for any particular goal that they claim to be in favor of achieving.

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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.

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*demanding

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"But you are doing fine, what are you complaining about?"

I've been seeing a few Twitter discussions that deal with a person wondering if their struggles in the academy are because of themselves (i.e., their personal merit/demerit axis) or because of their category (read: discrimination). This touches on the areas of established discrimination that we talk about around these parts, including recently the NIH grant fate of ESI applicants, women applicants and POC applicants.

In any of these cases, or the less grant-specific situations of adverse outcome in academia, it is impossible to determine on a case by case basis if the person is suffering from discrimination related to their category. I mean sure, if someone makes a very direct comment that they are marking down a specific manuscript, grant or recommendation only because the person is a woman, or of color or young then we can draw some conclusions. This never* happens. And we do all vary in our treatments/outcomes and in our merits that are intrinsic to ourselves. Sometimes outcomes are deserved, sometimes they vary by simple statistical chance and sometimes they are even better than deserved. So it is an unanswerable question, even if the chances are high that sometimes one is going to be treated poorly due to one's membership in one of the categories against which discrimination has been proven.

These questions become something other than unanswerable when the person pondering them is doing "fine".

"You are doing fine! Why would you complain about mistreatment, never mind wonder if it is some sort of discrimination you are suffering?"

I was also recently struck by a Tweeter comment about suffering a very current discrimination of some sort that came from a scientist who is by many measures "doing fine".

Once, quite some time ago, I was on a seminar committee charged with selecting a year's worth of speakers. We operated under a number of constraints, financial and topic-wise; I'm sure many of you have been on similar committees. I immediately noticed we weren't selecting a gender balanced slate and started pushing explicitly for us to include more women. Everyone sort of ruefully agreed with me and admitted we need to do better. Including a nonzero number of female faculty on this panel, btw. We did try to do better. One of the people we invited one year was a not-super-senior person (one our supposed constraints was seniority) at the time with a less than huge reputation. We had her visit for seminar and it was good if perhaps not as broad as some of the ones from more-senior people. But it all seemed appropriate and fine. The post-seminar kvetching was instructive to me. Many folks liked it just fine but a few people complained about how it wasn't up to snuff and we shouldn't have invited her. I chalked it up to the lack of seniority, maybe a touch of sexism and let it go. I really didn't even think twice about the fact that she's also a person of color.

Many years later this woman is doing fine. Very well respected member of the field, with a strong history of contributions. Sustained funding track record. Trainee successes. A couple of job changes, society memberships, awards and whatnot that one might view as testimony to an establishment type of career. A person of substance.

This person went on to have the type of career and record of accomplishment that would have any casual outsider wondering how she could possibly complain about anything given that she's done just fine and is doing just fine. Maybe even a little too fine, assuming she has critics of her science (which everyone does).

Well, clearly this person does complain, given the recent Twitt from her about some recent type of discrimination. She feels this discrimination. Should she? Is it really discrimination? After all, she's doing fine.

Looping back up to the other conversations mentioned at the top, I'll note that people bring this analysis into their self-doubt musings as well. A person who suffers some sort of adverse outcome might ask themselves why they are getting so angry. "Isn't it me?", they think, "Maybe I merited this outcome". Why are they so angered about statistics or other established cases of discrimination against other women or POC? After all, they are doing fine.

And of course even more reliable than their internal dialog we hear the question from white men. Or whomever doesn't happen to share the characteristics under discussion at the moment. There are going to be a lot of these folks that are of lesser status. Maybe they didn't get that plum job at that plum university. Or had a more checkered funding history. Fewer highly productive collaborations, etc. They aren't doing as "fine". And so anyone who is doing better, and accomplishing more, clearly could not have ever suffered any discrimination personally. Even those people who admit that there is a bias against the class will look at this person who is doing fine and say "well, surely not you. You had a cushy ride and have nothing to complain about".

I mused about the seminar anecdote because it is a fairly specific reminder to me that this person probably faced a lot of implicit discrimination through her career. Bias. Opposition. Neglect.

And this subtle antagonism surely did make it harder for her.

It surely did limit her accomplishments.

And now we have arrived. This is what is so hard to understand in these cases. Both in the self-reflection of self-doubt (imposter syndrome is a bear) and in the assessment of another person who is apparently doing fine.

They should be doing even better. Doing more, or doing what they have done more easily.

It took me a long while to really appreciate this**.

No matter how accomplished the woman or person of color might be at a given point of their career, they would have accomplished more if it were not for the headwind against which they always had to contend.

So no, they are not "doing fine". And they do have a right to complain about discrimination.

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*it does. but it is vanishingly rare in the context of all cases where someone might wonder if they were victim of some sort of discrimination.
**I think it is probably my thinking about how Generation X has been stifled in their careers relative to the generations above us that made this clearest to me. It's not quite the same but it is related.

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The culture of "the lab that socializes together" enables the predators

There is a cautionary tale in the allegations against three Dartmouth Professors who are under investigation (one retired as a Dean reached a recommendation to fire him) for sexual harassment, assault and/or discrimination. From The Dartmouth:

several students in the PBS department described what they called an uncomfortable workplace culture that blurred the line between professional and personal relationships.

Oh, hai, buzzkill! I mean it's just normal socializing. If you don't like it nobody is forcing you to do it man. Why do you object to the rest of us party hounds having a little fun?

They said they often felt pressured to drink at social events in order to further their professional careers, a dynamic that they allege promoted favoritism and at times inappropriate behavior.

The answer is that this potential for nastiness is always lurking in these situations. There are biases within the laboratory that can have very lasting consequences for the trainees. Who gets put on what projects. Who gets preferential resources. Who is selected to attend a fancy meeting with a low trainee/PI ratio? Who is introduced around as the amazing talented postdoc and who is ignored? This happens all the time to some extent but why should willingness (and ability, many folks have family responsibilities after normal working hours) to socialize with the lab affect this?

Oh, come on, buzzkill! It's just an occasional celebration of a paper getting accepted.

Several students who spoke to The Dartmouth said that Kelley encouraged his lab members to drink and socialize at least weekly, often on weeknights and at times during business hours, noting that Whalen occasionally joined Kelley for events off-campus.

Or, you know, constantly. Seriously? At the very least the PI has a drinking problem* and is covering it up with invented "lab" reasons to consume alcohol. But all too often it turns sinister and you can see the true slimy purpose revealed.

At certain social events, the second student said she sometimes refused drinks, only to find another drink in her hand, purchased or provided by one of the professors under the premise of being “a good host.”

Yeah, and now we get into the area of attempted drug-assisted sexual assault. Now sure, it could just be the PI thinking the grad student or postdoc can't afford the drinks and wants to be a good chap. It could be. But then.....

She described an incident at a social event with members of the department, at which she said everyone was drinking, and one of the professors put his arm around her. She said his arm slid lower, to the point that she was uncomfortable and “very aware of where his hand [was] on [her] body,” and she said she felt like she was being tested.

Ugh. The full reveal of the behavior.

Look, as always, there is a spectrum here. The occasional lab celebration that involves the consumption of alcohol, and the society meeting social event that involves consumption of alcohol, can be just fine. Can be. But these traditions in the academic workplace are often co-opted by the creeper to his own ends. So you can end up with that hard-partying PI who is apparently just treating his lab like "friends" or "family" and belives that "everyone needs to blow off steam" to "build teamwork" and this lets everyone pull together....but then the allegations of harassment start to surface. All of the "buddies" who haven't been affected (or more sinisterly have been affected for the good) circle the wagons.
Bro 1: Oh, he's such a good guy.
Bro 2: Why are you being a buzzkill?
Bro 3: Don't you think they are misinterpreting?

He isn't, because people are being harmed and no, the victims are not "misinterpreting" the wandering arm/hand.

Keep a tight rein on the lab-based socializing, PIs. It leads to bad places if you do not.

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*And that needs to be considered even when there is not the vaguest shred of sexual assault or harassment in evidence.

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Plea bargains are unsatisfying to their vict.... wait, again?

There has been a case of sexual harassment, assault and/or workplace misconduct at Dartmouth College that has been in the news this past year.

In allegations that span multiple generations of graduate students, four students in Dartmouth’s department of psychological and brain sciences told The Dartmouth this week that three professors now under investigation by the College and state prosecutors created a hostile academic environment that they allege included excessive drinking, favoritism and behaviors that they considered to be sexual harassment.

It was always a little bit unusual because three Professors from the same department (Psychological and Brain Sciences) were seemingly under simultaneous investigation and the NH State AG launched an investigation at the same time. It is not all clear to me yet but it seems to be a situation in which the triggering behaviors are not necessarily linked.

The news of the day (via Valley News) is that one of the professors under investigation has retired, "effective immediately".

Professor Todd Heatherton has retired, effective immediately, following a recommendation by the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, Elizabeth Smith, that his tenure be revoked and that he be terminated, Hanlon said in the email.

“In light of the findings of the investigation and the dean’s recommendation, Heatherton will continue to be prohibited from entering campus property or from attending any Dartmouth-sponsored events, no matter where they are held,” Hanlon wrote.

This comes hard on the heels of Inder Verma retiring from the Salk Institute just before their institutional inquiry was set to conclude.

I understand the role of plea bargains in normal legal proceedings. I am not sure I understand the logic of the approach when it comes to busting sexual harasser/discriminater individuals in academia. I mean sure, it may avoid a protracted legal fight between the alleged perpetrator and the University or Institute as the former fights to retain a shred of dignity, membership in the NAS or perhaps retirement benefits. But for the University or Institute, in this day and age of highly public attention they just like they are, yet again, letting a perp off the hook*. So any fine statements they may have made about taking sexual discrimination seriously and having zero tolerance rings hollow. I am mindful that what we've seen in the past is that the Universities and Institutes are fully willing to deploy their administrative and legal apparatus to defend an accused perpetrator, often for years and in repeated incidents, when they think it in their interest to do so. So saving money can't really be the reason. It really does seem to be further institutional protection- they cannot be accused of having admitted to defending and harboring the perp over the past years or decades of his harassing behavior.

It is all very sad for the victims. The victims are left with very little. There is no formal finding of guilt to support their allegations. There is often no obvious punishment for a guy who should probably have long since retired (Verma is 70) simply retiring. There is not even any indirect apology from the University or Institution. I wish we could do better.

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*At least in the Verma case, the news reporting made it very clear that the Salk Board of Trustees formally accepted Verma's tender of resignation which apparently then halted any further consideration of the case. They could have chosen not to accept it, one presumes.

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