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Harassment Common for National Institutes of Health Employees

More than 20 percent of survey respondents said they had experienced some form of harassment within the last 12 months.

Jun 14, 2019
Catherine Offord

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More than one-fifth of people who work for the National Institutes of Health and who responded to a survey by the agency have experienced some form of harassment during the last year, according to an interim report the agency published on Wednesday (June 12). Of nearly 16,000 respondents, 10 percent reported that they had experienced unwanted sexual attention, while 18 percent said they had been subject to gender harassment.

“This report provides further evidence that we have work to do in order to make good on our determination that ‘harassment doesn’t work here,’” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), wrote in an email to employees on Wednesday, according to Science.

The interim report, based on data collected between January and March this year, is part of a wider initiative to combat harassment in the agency. More than 40 percent of the approximately 36,000 people with valid NIH email addresses responded, and a more in-depth analysis of the data is expected in late 2019 or early 2020.

The current analysis indicates that more than twice as many women as men report experiencing harassment—27 percent versus 12 percent. And nearly 45 percent of respondents who described their gender identities as other than “man” or “woman” reported harassment, with almost all of those people reporting gender harassment specifically.

Of the respondents who reported experiencing sexual harassment, 70 percent indicated that the perpetrator was a man, and nearly 90 percent said that the sexual harassment they experienced had taken place on NIH property.

A presentation of the results at yesterday’s meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Director of NIH outlined several next steps for the agency, such as providing “enhanced training and education to [the] NIH community,” including bystander training and “mandatory updated Prevention of Sexual Harassment” training, and supporting staff in “reporting harassment so disciplinary action for confirmed perpetrators is more certain.”

The agency’s interim survey results were released the same day as a report from the US Government Accountability Office, which found that major federal science agencies were receiving low numbers of reports of sexual harassment from grantee institutions, even though studies, such as a report released last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, suggest that sexual harassment is rife in scientific research.

The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, which includes NIH, received just one complaint between 2015 and 2019, while the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture received none. The National Science Foundation, which recently started mandating that its funded institutions report any findings in investigations of sexual harassment complaints, received 14.

See “NSF Will Require Reporting of Sexual Harassment

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chair of the House of Representatives’ science committee, called the rate of reporting “shockingly low” at a congressional hearing on the issue, Nature reports.

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