Be Bold

Be Bold

This is a guest post by FoR Advisory Board member, Dr. Christopher Pickett.

On Thursday, the Advisory Council to the Director of the National Institutes of Health discussed the formation of a new working group on sexual harassment in NIH-funded labs. Well after the start of the nationwide #MeToo reckoning, the landmark National Academies study on sexual harassment in academia, biomedical leaders being recognized for their work on harassment issues in labs, the formation of a new working group on the issue is, to put it mildly, underwhelming.

More than two years ago, NIH leadership clearly stated the agency would “identify the steps necessary to end [sexual harassment] in all NIH-supported research workplaces and scientific meetings.” They were going to “gather as much data as possible to more fully understand the nature and extent of sexual harassment among scientists,” and to “work with governmental, academic and private-sector colleagues” and “determine what levers are already available to influential stakeholders” to mitigate harassment.

NIH leadership promised that action would happen within “weeks to months.” Where are the data collected? Where is the evidence of partnerships or the public identification of levers the agency can use to stop harassment in NIH-funded labs? The lack of any clear follow up to this article and the continual dodges and deflections on harassment issues by members of NIH leadership are a significant part of the frustration and rage the community feels with the NIH on this issue.

The other part of this frustration is the sense that we know what will happen with the new working group: There will be a good showing of public workshops and discussions that result in milquetoast recommendations that do little to solve the problems at hand followed by the NIH patting itself on the back once the weak recommendations are implemented.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Immediately before the harassment session, the ACD was discussing the results of the Next Generation Researchers Initiative working group to provide recommendations to change policies to the benefit of young researchers, and one of the NGRI committee members crystallized exactly what goes wrong with NIH working groups. NGRI members would go down a path toward a policy solutions only to be hemmed in when told the NIH lacked the legal authority to do what the members were considering. The committee then restricted their discussions to what fell within the NIH’s legal mandate.

That is what it looks like when a committee negotiates with itself. To the members of the ACD working group on sexual harassment: Don’t do this. Be bold.

Victims of sexual assault and harassment deserve decisive action by the NIH that supports victims, marginalizes perpetrators and prevents future incidents. The new ACD working group can’t possibly deliver on this if, like with other working groups, it negotiates itself out of bold recommendations that actually address the problem.

Bold recommendations from other working groups and committees are often dismissed as being unworkable. But the sexual harassment working group is working in a different environment. The scientific community is vocally demanding the NIH take action to curb sexual harassment and assault, and the agency desperately needs to do something proactive. This gives the new working group much more room to push on recommendations that will make a difference.

Realizing this position, the ACD working group on sexual harassment should present a range of recommendations from the minimal, baby-step type of recommendation through to the most provocative and sweeping suggestions. Unlike other working groups whose unimplemented recommendations point to failures of the committee, it should be up to other NIH and HHS administrators and leaders to explain why they failed to make good on the recommendations of the sexual harassment ACD working group.

And if universities want to cry out about burdensome NIH regulations on this issue, let them. Let them explain why, when the NIH might take concrete steps to curb sexual harassment and assault, they are standing in the way of solving problems and protecting victims. It is time for universities to step up and be a partner in finding solutions, and the idea that a $40 billion federal funding agency can’t find the levers to get compliance on this issue doesn’t hold water.

The NIH has been flatfooted and tone deaf in its actions so far on sexual harassment and assault. But the momentum is on the side of change. Use this momentum and groundswell of support in the scientific community to push for strong changes rather than confining yourselves to what agency leadership may be comfortable with.

The time is now. Be bold.

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