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.
"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.