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Clampdown on sexual harassment in labs

US National Institutes of Health reinforces commitment to punishing researchers, while Congress discusses rules for federal funding agencies

Mariana Zanetti

On February 28, in a succession of tweets, geneticist Francis Collins, director of the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced that 24 cases of sexual harassment involving researchers funded by the agency were investigated last year. As a result, 14 principal investigators associated with various laboratories and universities were replaced by other researchers and 21 were punished or fired by the institutions that employ them. The NIH, led by Collins, is the leading biomedical and public health funding agency in the US. Its 2018 budget was US$37 billion, which was invested in projects conducted at universities and hospitals, as well as at the 27 centers run by the agency, which together employ 1,200 researchers. Reports of sexual harassment were also made against NIH staff. According to the report, there were 35 administrative investigations involving members of NIH teams, resulting in 20 disciplinary actions, from cease and desist warnings to dismissals.

It was the first time the agency’s management has disclosed details of harassment cases and the penalties applied, even if the names of those punished have not been shared. “Sexual harassment does not just damage the careers of those who have encountered it, it can leave deep scars and psychological effects that reverberate for a lifetime,” said Collins. “To all those who have endured these experiences, we are sorry that it has taken so long to acknowledge and address the climate and culture that has caused such harm. We are concerned that NIH has been part of the problem. We are determined to become part of the solution.”

Collins publicly acknowledged the importance of the work of neurologist BethAnn McLaughlin, from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. McLaughlin has been at the forefront of the campaign against harassment, promoting the #MeTooSTEM hashtag on Twitter, which encourages students and researchers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to report cases of sexual harassment. She created an online petition asking the NIH to ban scientists being investigated for harassment from receiving funding from the agency, and even directly criticized Collins. “A special thank you to BethAnn McLaughlin, whose leadership of the #MeTooSTEM movement has provided a voice for victims of harassment. Her activism has been valuable in shaping NIH’s discussion on how to strengthen our efforts,” said the NIH director. In February, McLaughlin met with an NIH committee to discuss and analyze the issue of sexual harassment, which is expected to disclose its findings and recommendations in June.

The discussion on sexual harassment in academia in the US has gained momentum in the last two years in the wake of a series of scandals, such as the case of paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, who resigned as curator of the Human Origins section of the American Museum of Natural History in New York after being accused of attacking a colleague at a hotel and behaving inappropriately toward students during field studies.

Several investigations have been launched to gauge the scale of the problem. The latest, released in March by the American Economic Association, was based on interviews with 9,000 of its members. Of those interviewed, 100 women reported having been sexually assaulted by colleagues at some point in their career. A comprehensive study was released by the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine last year, showing that there are three different types of harassment that coexist: hostile behavior toward students and researchers, favorable treatment in return for sexual rewards, and assault.

In recent months, the NIH has faced increasing pressure to tackle harassment more assertively. In September, Collins announced the creation of a new reporting channel for complaints related to NIH staff members, but did not change its policy with regard to researchers at universities and hospitals funded by the agency, claiming that it has no legal support to get involved at other institutions.

The apparent hesitation was in stark contrast with the actions taken by the USA’s biggest funding agency for basic research: the National Science Foundation (NSF). In October, it became mandatory to notify the NSF in the event of any proven case of harassment relating to projects it funds. Some 2,000 universities and institutions funded by the agency were also asked to tell the NSF how they punish researchers found guilty of harassment. Other actions are being looked at. “The NSF does not consider this a final step against sexual harassment,” said astrophysicist France Córdova, director of the foundation.

In early 2019, US Congress began discussing ways to support the fight against sexual harassment in science. Democrat congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, chair of the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, presented a joint bill with Republican congressman Frank Lucas that includes various measures designed to crack down on harassment. One proposes that the government’s Office of Science and Technology establish common rules to be followed by all federal science funding agencies.

According to Johnson, the policy adopted by the NSF had a significant influence on the bill. “Sexual harassment is driving some of our brightest minds away from careers in research at a time when we need them most,” Johnson said when presenting the bill.

“It is unacceptable for taxpayer dollars to fund researchers who are guilty of harassing students or colleagues,” said Frank Lucas. “Curbing sexual misconduct is a priority and we are proud that this bill is one of the first introduced in this Congress,” he added.

Funding disparities

Of the principal investigators who received NIH grants for the first time between 2006 and 2017, women earned an average of US$39,100 less than men. While the average grant value for male researchers was US$165,700, the average for women was US$126,000, according to data published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in March. There were no differences in performance, such as number of published articles or citations, to justify such a disparity, and the problem was even observed among researchers at the most prestigious universities in the country, such as Harvard, Cornell, Yale, and Princeton.

The only area the trend was not seen was in larger and longer-term funding, such as R01 grants, which are considered more competitive—in these cases, women received US$16,000 more than men on average. The NIH told The New York Times it is working to address funding disparities and other gender inequalities in biomedical research. “We have and continue to support efforts to understand the barriers and factors faced by women scientists and to implement interventions to overcome them.”