As NIH Strives to Reduce Sexual Harassment, Many Details Remain Hidden, Institutions Balk

Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA)
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Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA)

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.[1]

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).[2] At the same meeting in June, Lauer disclosed that NIH is drafting proposed regulations that could mandate disclosures and training, among other items.[3]

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.[4]

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.

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