Report on Research Compliance 18, no. 8 (August, 2021)
NIH is continuing to face pushback and questionable actions by institutions grappling with agency-funded “superstar” principal investigators (PIs) who sexually harass their colleagues or students. In “quite a number of cases,” institutions have imposed a variety of sanctions without removing the PI from an award, something to which NIH objects, according to Michael Lauer, NIH’s deputy director for extramural research.
Then there are those institutions that sign nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) with PIs and transfer relevant awards to the PI’s unsuspecting new employer, a situation Lauer said NIH is helpless to stop.
Indeed, more than 40% of PIs who were the subject of sexual harassment complaints to NIH were not formally investigated by their employers, and only 25% of allegations were substantiated. Institutions removed from awards only 54 of 215 PIs who were the subject of the complaints, NIH’s data from 2018 through April of this year shows.
As a result of the #MeToo movement and recommendations from its own advisory committee, NIH in recent years has vowed to root out harassment in science, with increased transparency and reporting of cases key among the strategies it has embraced.
But even NIH has limits to what it reveals and, in the wake of the pandemic, doesn’t yet have data to know whether its efforts are helping to reduce the incidences of harassment, which may have been artificially suppressed as research shut down or moved off campus. Alternatively, reporting also may be increasing because of attention to the issue, Lauer suggested.
Lauer presented some data on 315 sexual and other harassment cases NIH has handled from 2018 through the end of April during a recent meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD). At the same meeting in June, Lauer disclosed that NIH is drafting proposed regulations that could mandate disclosures and training, among other items.
From January to the end of April, NIH had received a total of 70 allegations; this compares to 106 in all of calendar year 2020. Given the volume up until May, Lauer expects that NIH will receive at least as many complaints this year as last. Lauer said the “majority” of the allegations reflect “reports that we otherwise would not have received” prior to the agency’s initiation of a web-based reporting tool and its emphasis on halting harassment.
It was the first update since an ACD meeting a year earlier—and some of Lauer’s themes, such as institutional intransigence, echoed those from 2020. At that time, Carrie Wolinetz, then-associate director for science policy and acting chief of staff to NIH Director Francis Collins, reported that in the first six months of 2020, “at least” 14 individuals were no longer PIs on NIH awards due to allegations or findings of sexual and other types of harassment or misconduct.
As of the end of April, NIH had closed nearly 85% of the sexual harassment cases and approximately 86% of the non-sexual harassment ones. Among the total, the “most difficult ones of all” are those in which institutions have signed an NDA with a PI who has a “tentative finding” of sexual harassment or misconduct, Lauer said.
Unsuspecting Institutions Hire ‘Superstars’
In these instances—which Lauer did not put a number on—a resignation occurs once an institution tells a PI it has made a preliminary finding and wants to impose sanctions. Instead of accepting any sanctions, the PI resigns in an arrangement that includes the NDA.
“The understanding is they leave the institution” and the institution “will not tell anybody what’s going on,” which frees PIs to “get a job someplace else,” Lauer said.
Once there is a resignation, “the investigation stops. There is no formal finding,” Lauer said.
He added: “Many, many times, these scientists are seemingly superstars” who “get an offer from another institution that is oblivious and does not know what’s going on. They may think that they have succeeded in an incredible recruit” of a PI.
The original institution agrees to relinquish the grant, and the new institution submits to NIH a “type seven” or change of institution request, said Lauer. “And we know that there’s a really serious problem,” that the PI’s former lab has been “the site of some very serious violations.”
Lauer said there is “seemingly nothing” NIH can do in this situation and that it “gets us into a really difficult spot.”
Sanctions May Not Mean Award Removal
In other cases, institutions impose sanctions, including that the individual is “not allowed to supervise people alone, or they’re not allowed to be in contact with certain individuals, or they can only come into the laboratory with a chaperone, or they’re not allowed to supervise graduate students or post-docs,” Lauer said. Yet, some of these same institutions will also say that “there are no problems with the NIH grants. They can continue to serve as the PI on NIH grants,” according to Lauer.
Lauer said NIH officials will express that “we don’t quite understand that if somebody cannot be trusted to supervise certain individuals, or be an advisor for graduate students who are in a highly vulnerable state, how are we supposed to believe that the research is being conducted in a safe environment, and that this person can be trusted?”
After “difficult conversations,” the institution will agree to “get another PI to take over that lab” and to handle other responsibilities while the PI is restricted from training graduate students, Lauer said.
NIH has released no information about who these investigators are or where they work—or worked. However, Science used a headline that said the 75 individuals who were removed from awards were “lab heads.”
But Lauer did not use that label, nor did NIH in response to follow-up questions from RRC. NIH referred RRC to the agency’s definition of PI or program director, which makes no mention of running a lab.
RRC also asked NIH to disclose additional details about these PIs, such as their age, gender, areas of study, and size of awards. “We do not have those data available,” NIH said.
NIH Mum on Possible Institutional Sanctions
NIH also did not provide more current data than Lauer shared. NIH officials “anticipate sharing updated data approximately twice a year, and as such, do not have any additional updated numbers to share at this time beyond what was discussed at the ACD meeting,” the agency told RRC.
Just 31 of the 315 cases were reported by institutions, NIH’s data show. Some advocates for those who have been sexually harassed by NIH awardees and later protected by their institutions say this behavior will not end until the institutions themselves are held accountable.
But when asked by RRC whether NIH had ever sanctioned an institution for harassment by a PI or for failing to properly deal with such a person, such as declaring the institution ineligible for funding or imposing new oversight, the agency said it could not provide details.
“NIH does not discuss whether or not specific grant compliance actions have or have not been taken on a specific institution. When issues are identified, NIH works with the recipient institution to identify appropriate administrative actions to ensure they have safe and healthful working conditions for their employees and foster work environments conducive to high-quality research,” the agency said.
NIH has options it can take when “an institution, which is responsible for senior/key personnel on an NIH-funded grant, is not in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies.” These “actions to remedy the noncompliance” can “include facilitating a change in senior/key personnel, funding restrictions, specific award conditions, or suspension or termination of the grant award,” NIH said.
Peer Reviewers Removed in Greater Numbers
The agency also clarified that it leaves the investigations up to the institutions. “The recipient institution determines whether an allegation is substantiated, and NIH works with the recipient institution to implement administrative actions related to grants,” NIH said.
In contrast to allowing institutions to remove PIs, NIH itself can terminate someone’s service as a peer reviewer. Since 2018, NIH has removed 87 peer reviewers or 45% of those facing sexual harassment allegations—nearly twice the number of PIs overall who faced sanctions generally—and 38 or 31% of peer reviewers facing allegations other than sexual harassment.
As Lauer put it, NIH has a “fairly low threshold for removing people from peer review,” and, “if there are credible concerns, we will remove a person from peer review. If it turns out that everything is fine, then we can restore the ability to invite them for peer review. But, we want to maintain the integrity of peer review.”
He also described how NIH has strengthened its relationship with the HHS Office for Civil Rights particularly for “difficult cases,” noting that OCR staff “have access to our confidential files for specific cases.” OCR and NIH coordinate investigations involving Title IX enforcement and sex discrimination.
1 “NIH Extramural Harassment Statistics,” Report on Research Compliance 18, no. 8 (August 2021).
2 Michael Lauer, “Update on the ACD Working Group Recommendations on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment,” meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Director, June 10, 2021, https://bit.ly/2TV5rG1; NIH, “Advisory Committee to the Director – June 2021 (Day 1),” VideoCast, 4:11:00, June 10, 2021, https://bit.ly/3cZHhkv.
3 Theresa Defino, “NIH: Harassment Proposed Rules Could Mandate Training, Misconduct Disclosures,” Report on Research Compliance 18, no. 7 (July 2021), https://bit.ly/3hC3BTO.
4 Theresa Defino, “Institutions Pushing Back Against Removing PIs From Awards, Despite Harassment Findings,” Report on Research Compliance 17, no. 7 (July 2020), https://bit.ly/3iTzIQ9.
5 Jocelyn Kaiser, “More than 70 lab heads removed from NIH grants after harassment findings,” Science, June 11, 2021, https://bit.ly/3epTtvw.
6 Theresa Defino, “To Stop Protection of Harassers, NIH ‘Must Sanction Institutions.’” Report on Research Compliance 17, no. 7 (July 2020), https://bit.ly/3hBByUU.