Policies surrounding sexual harassment in science and federal grant funding have been heavily discussed and been the subject of updates in the last few days. We have attempted to summarize updates below, and may clarify with updates (which will be noted below).

NIH creates sexual harassment website

On Monday National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Francis Collins issued a statement discussing how NIH is addressing sexual harassment. No policy changes were announced, a website with sexual harassment information was launched, and the notice spoke of “new initiatives” for the intramural program to be released in the Federal Register today, which appear to consist of a new Manual Chapter and policy piece on personal relationships.

National Science Foundation increases oversight

At the same time, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced a new term and condition of award, following a process of proposing rule changes and soliciting public comments (to which Future of Research submitted comments in May 2018). The new term and condition of award requires institutions to notify NSF when a funded investigator is placed under administrative action at an institution. Further details are summarized in their press release and fact sheet.

NIH responds to NSF changes

Following the announcement by NSF, NIH issued a statement acknowledging NSF’s new terms, but stating that:

“Legal constraints that apply differently to NSF and NIH currently prevent NIH from immediate implementation of an identical policy.  A rulemaking process would be needed to determine if NIH can require the same responses from our awardee organizations.”

The process in question appears to be due to differences in the Code of Federal Regulations. NIH is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, while NSF is an independent government agency. It is our understanding that agencies are generally able to amend these codes at their discretion, without formal Congressional approval.

The statement further points out:

“The new NSF policy extends the oversight process by requiring grantee institutions to notify NSF of findings of harassment, or the cause for an administrative leave for a principal investigator (PI) or co-PI.”

It is not yet clear to us, however, how this is different (at least in principle) to the post-award policy NIH has posted on the website it released on Monday:

“Post-Award Actions
The grantee institution is obligated to notify NIH if it takes an administrative action, such as placing an employee on leave or terminating employment, that affects the ability of an employee to continue as senior/key personnel on an NIH grant award.

If NIH indirectly learns of an allegation of sexual harassment, we immediately alert the recipient institution to verify issues and take all appropriate actions. If senior/key personnel on an NIH-funded grant are not in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies, NIH can take several actions focused on the institution. These actions include requiring a change in senior personnel, or remedies for noncompliance, which can include suspension or termination of the grant award.

Generally, NIH takes into consideration all individuals involved in the circumstance, such as patients, employees, trainees, and in some cases, those affected by harassment supported by NIH funding.

While NIH does not have jurisdiction to intervene in personnel matters at third-party organizations, we take all allegations of sexual harassment very seriously and require that grantee institutions foster work environments conducive to high-quality research, a term and condition of NIH award. We urge people to report allegations to the appropriate authorities. (See Important Contacts, above.)

For more information on NIH’s commitment to creating and maintaining a work environment that is free of harassment and other inappropriate conduct, please see the NIH Anti-Sexual Harassment website.”

NIH to set up working group

In addition, Dr. Collins announced:

“I will establish a working group of my Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) to help guide NIH’s role in oversight.”

It should be noted, however, that Dr. Collins and others at NIH published “NIH push to stop sexual harassment” in March 2016 in Nature, which states:

“As the leading US government funder of scientific research, 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.

In September last year, we restated our expectation that organizers of NIH-supported conferences and meetings should assure a safe environment, free of discrimination (see go.nature.com/zmukk8).

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.

We owe this to our colleagues and the public, who trust in our ability to make the biomedical research enterprise the best that it can be.”

The creation of a working group to the Advisory Committee of the Director, and identification that changes by Health and Human Services to the Code of Federal Regulations, presumably could have begun, and perhaps even have effected a policy change, in the last 30 months. It is not clear why NIH has waited until this point to begin this process.

NSF changes in more detail

The NSF held a media call on Wednesday (see reports in Science and Buzzfeed) and a call to institutions and policy groups in this morning. The full text of their term and condition will be announced in the Federal Register September 21, and will come into effect October 21. Any new award or amendment of an existing award after this date will be subject to the term and condition: any finding or determination made of harassment on or after this date will invoke the new notification procedure, and any placement on administrative leave or administrative action taken after this date will also invoke the new notification.

The NSF opened today’s call by pointing out the significance of the change, which they stated to be part of their mission. Harassment disrupts the entire scientific ecosystem, and so has a negative impact on the science, and scientists, they fund.

Comments submitted to the NSF were received across the breadth of the community and there was significant variation in perspectives, related to stakeholder opinions. It was stated that this had made the process of incorporating all comments  challenging. They pointed to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report on Sexual Harassment of Women as a particularly helpful source of recommendations.

Some changes to the original proposed rule were clarified. For example, all administrative actions (and not just placement of a PI or co-PI on administrative leave) need to be reported to NSF. If a co-PI is not at the principal institution, the subawardee institution can report to NSF, so it is not the sole responsibility of the prime institution to report behavior at other institutions (however, that does not eliminate the need for good communication between subawardee and prime institutions, as that affect the ability to continue the grant).

There was a move from a requirement to notify NSF within 7 days to 10 days: many had argued 7 days was more than sufficient, whereas apparently some institutions had pushed for 30 days. The notification therefore triggers a conversation, but all documentation of plans to continue the research and how to adjust do not need to be ready in this time. Despite institutional concerns, NSF stated clearly that their priority was to protect the research, and the people, they fund.

NSF made clear that removal of a grant would be a last resort and rare. In particular they expressed concern for undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs supported on the research, and how their careers would not also be affected by the actions of a PI or co-PI. NSF expressed concern that they wished to continue to see that people would be supported with NSF interests being protected, those interested relating to the science and scientists they are funding.

NSF is to be notified not only of conduct within the funded lab, but notification requirements apply to a broad set of activities including teaching, advising, mentoring, administrative activities and general presence on campus. However concern was expressed that NSF does not want any personally identifiable information about the complainant or any other individuals. This information must not be submitted in the notification, which should mention only the PIs or co-PIs on the award.

It was stated that Title IX is not involved or related as it is a separate process. NSF is focused on awardees and their compliance with terms and conditions, whereas Title IX is for institutions to ensure compliance with federal law. Title IX is an institutional remedy, but the NSF policy is to focus purely on the PI. This includes having the PI removed/substituted, but in consultation with the institution first.

House Committee issues letter and recommendations to Government Accountability Office

In related news, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology issued a letter and recommendations “to Curb Sexual Misconduct in the Scientific Community” to the Government Accountability Office. The committee makes “four recommendations to the GAO to consider:

  • Consistent and effective training across the concerned communities to reduce sexual misconduct.
  • Clear, accessible structures to make reporting sexual misconduct easier.
  • Reconsidering the academic model of having a single advisor responsible for overseeing a student or trainee. This dynamic, and the resulting fear of reprisal, discourages reporting of sexual misconduct.
  • Implementing and enforcing effective consequences, including the cancelation of federal grants.”

The last point is particularly pertinent to the current NIH and NSF discussions.

In the press release, Chairman Lamar Smith of the Committee states:

“No taxpayer dollars should be awarded to a researcher who engages in harassment and inappropriate behavior toward a colleague or a student under their charge. The Committee conducted a thorough investigation and made a series of recommendations to remedy this problem. NSF’s final rule is a significant step towards addressing sexual misconduct in the academic and scientific communities.”