The National Institutes of Health has received more than 300 complaints against NIH-funded scientists since 2018, the majority of which relate to sexual harassment. As a result, 75 investigators have been removed from their grants, the agency reported on June 10.
The data were presented during a meeting of the NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director, and included complaints received in the years since the NIH made changes to its complaint process in response to growing pressure to address sexual and racial harassment by the scientists it funds. Prior to 2018, no principal investigator had been removed from an NIH grant for sexual harassment, Science reports, and the agency has increasingly urged victims to bring their complaints forward.
“As the largest single funder of biomedical research in the world, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) bears a responsibility to take action to put an end to this behavior,” the authors of an editorial in Science, including NIH director Francis Collins, wrote last year.
Breaking down the nature of the complaints described in last week’s NIH meeting, the analysis shows that the number of complaints, regardless of their specific nature, has increased, up from 31 in all of 2018 to more than 70 thus far in 2021. Of the 75 PIs removed from grants, more than 50 were due to sexual harassment, while the remainder were removed for racial discrimination, bullying, or other causes. In addition to losing their funding, 61 of those investigators left their positions. The presentation did not specify if these were terminations or voluntary resignations.
The analysis also found that less than one-third of the sexual harassment claims were investigated and validated by the accused scientist’s host institution, compared to 22 percent for other types of complaints. Alexandra Tracy-Ramirez, an attorney in Colorado with experience in gender discrimination, tells Science that these are promising results, given how difficult it can be to support such complaints. Victims might drop their complaints, or cases might fail to meet the “severe or pervasive” standard required to classify a complaint as true harassment. When an investigation does corroborate findings or result in a settlement, the agency then works with the institution to “remove [the scientist] from the NIH ecosystem,” the deputy director of the NIH’s Office of Extramural Research, Michael Lauer, said during the meeting, as reported by Science.
#MeToo comes to STEM
Many funding agencies and professional organizations reassessed their complaint policies in the wake of a report released in 2018 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) and funded in part by the NIH and in response to pressure from advocates, such as MeTooSTEM. The NAS report found that up to half of women in academia experience sexual harassment, and that existing policies were failing to address the issue.
While election to the NAS had previously been granted for life, the organization did vote in 2019 to amend its bylaws, allowing members to be ousted in proven cases of sexual harassment by a two-thirds majority vote of the academy’s Council. In May of this year, the first such vote was carried out, expelling astronomer Geoffrey Marcy after allegations of sexual harassment led Marcy to leave his position at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. Another case against UC Irvine geneticist Francisco Ayala remains pending.
“We are watching social change happening in front of our eyes,” NAS member Nancy Hopkins, an emeritus biologist at MIT, told Science when Marcy’s expulsion was announced. “It has been a long time coming.”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) also announced similar modifications in 2018 allowing for the revocation of its members, and five scientists have been removed since 2019 following sexual harassment inquiries, including Salk Institute cancer biologist Inder Verma and Lawrence Krauss, formerly a physicist at Case Western Reserve University.
Changes have also come to funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the NIH. Any institution receiving funding from the NSF is now required to inform the agency within 10 business days if it finds that anyone funded by an NSF grant has committed sexual harassment, Nature reported in 2018. The policy is meant to increase transparency so that researchers cannot simply leave one institution and apply to another without disclosing ongoing investigations. In a recent example of such behavior revealed in an investigative report by The Cancer Letter in May, NIH-funded oncologist Axel Grothey lied on multiple applications across three states. According to the article, Grothey answered “no” when asked if he had ever been asked to or allowed to resign pending disciplinary action related to his character, even as he was under investigation for inappropriate sexual relations with several women he mentored.
The NIH also announced amendments following the NAS report that put sexual harassment on par with research misconduct, fraud, inappropriate foreign influence, and peer-review integrity violations, Nature reported last year. In 2020, the agency outlined a series of steps, including restricting scientists from serving on peer-review panels during an investigation, withholding grants, and cracking down on requests to transfer grants in cases where an accused harasser switched jobs. In the 2020 Science editorial written by Collins and other NIH officials, the authors stated that universities must inform the agency if major changes were made to a grant because scientists were being investigated for creating an unsafe work environment. Speaking to Nature in 2020, Carrie Wolinetz, the NIH associate director for science policy and an author of the editorial, elaborated: “We have specifically defined that as including harassment, bullying, sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour.”
See “The Year in #MeToo”
Despite the progress at the NIH, advocates who pushed for the new policies told Nature in 2020 that some of the alterations rely too much on university cooperation and that the new rules aren’t as stringent as those in place at the NSF. The NIH only requires universities to report changes when the status of a grant changes, for example, meaning information ebbs and flows with the grant-update cycle, whereas NSF requires prompt notice regardless of the timing. And many universities will only share the results of a complete investigation, meaning that the majority of claims that aren’t fully investigated may never be brought to the NIH at all. Speaking to Nature, Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University who helped shape the NIH’s new policies, says “This guidance is a good start, but there is much more that needs to be done.”
Correction (June 18, 2021): A previous version of this article had stated that AAAS has yet to revoke a membership in response to sexual harassment allegations. AAAS has in fact removed five scientists—two each in 2019 and 2020, and one this year. In addition, we had stated that a petition by MeTooStem founder BethAnn McLaughlin inspired changes to AAAS's revocation policy, but a representative from AAAS tells The Scientist that this was already underway at the time. The Scientist regrets these errors.