As part of the National Science Foundation’s effort to prevent gender violence in science, its director, France A. Córdova, recently announced new terms and conditions for reporting gender violence to the organization. It is the kind of clear and bold approach that the National Institutes of Health should be taking. Instead, the NIH is sticking with its weak “guidance” on anti-sexual harassment, shirking its responsibility and placing the burden for action on survivors, though it did launch a new website on the topic.

The new NSF policy requires institutions to notify the foundation when a principal investigator or co-principal investigator is facing administrative action, administrative leave, a finding or determination of responsibility, or is under active investigation related to sexual harassment, other forms of harassment, or sexual assault. In striving for clarity, the NSF also defined those italicized terms (listed below).

The new policy, which goes into effect Oct. 21, 2018, applies to individuals who receive funding from the NSF who have committed acts of gender violence in all environments, including their home institutions, online, at field sites or other facilities, and at conferences. Under the NSF policy, reportable actions include acts of gender-based harassment, unwelcome sexual attention, sexual coercion, or the creation of a hostile environment by principal or co-principal investigators.

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This stance complements Title IX Obama-era guidance, which required the investigation of off-site alleged sexual harassment or sexual violence regardless of whether the person harassed or assaulted had an affiliation with the offender’s institution, although there are hints that this guidance may be changed by the Trump administration.

Notifications of gender violence must be submitted to the NSF Office of Diversity and Inclusion within 10 business days of an action, whether it’s a finding or determination, or an administrative action or leave (whichever comes first).

Once notified, the NSF says it will conduct a review with four considerations: 1) the safety and security of personnel supported by the NSF award; 2) the overall impact on the NSF-funded activity; 3) the continued advancement of the science and the other scientists involved in the project; and 4) whether the organization has taken appropriate action to ensure the continuity of science if the principal or co-principal investigator has been removed.

During this process, the NSF will consult with representatives from the organization that employs the individual under investigation. From its review, the NSF will decide whether or not the principal or co-principal investigator should be substituted or removed from the award, if the funding amount should be reduced, or if the award should be suspended or terminated.

In stark contrast, the NIH has done essentially nothing to address gender violence committed by NIH-funded scientists. As outlined in an online FAQ, the NIH encourages individuals who have experienced gender violence to contact “the appropriate authorities,” including law enforcement, the institution’s affirmative action and equal opportunity office, human resources office, or the federal Office of Civil Rights. These suggestions, especially encouraging survivors to report to law enforcement, indicate that NIH leadership has a limited understanding of reporting barriers for survivors.

(A comparison of the policies of the two organizations is below.)

The NIH states that individuals “can” submit a complaint if they believe an NIH-funded project was “affected as a result of harassment, including sexual harassment.” Note, however, that the NIH provides no guidance on a process for investigating complaints, the potential consequences for principal or co-principal investigators, or protections against retaliation for those reporting such complaints. This is effectively a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for sexual misconduct by our country’s leading body for science.

Question number seven of the FAQ section of the NIH website asks if a principal or co-principal investigator would lose funding because of gender violence. The NIH sidesteps the issue by reciting a policy already in existence: that the NIH only requires notification if the “organization seeks to remove or change the status of senior/key personnel named on the notice of award” — a policy that is not specific to acts of gender violence by grant-funded scientists.

The rationale for inaction by NIH is unclear and contradictory. Before the NSF made its announcement on gender violence, NIH Director Francis Collins had announced that his organization was not making any explicit changes to its gender violence policy because it “is a complex issue. NIH funding is awarded to institutions, not to individuals.” Yet this line of thinking contradicts other NIH policies that allow grantees to transfer their funding when they change institutions.

After the NSF policy announcement, Collins released a statement stating that a policy change on gender violence could not occur immediately because “legal constraints that apply differently to NSF and NIH currently prevent NIH from immediate implementation of an identical policy. A rule-making process would be needed to determine if NIH can require the same responses from our awardee organizations.”

When asked about the specifics of the rule-making process by reporter Jocelyn Kaiser at Science magazine, Collins explained that this process, involving the White House Office of Management and Budget, would take at least a year and that the NIH is “actively exploring” this option and that he plans to work with NSF’s Córdova to discuss rules for all research agencies.

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Although an extensive review of the NIH rule-making process is beyond the scope of this article, the NIH does have emergency and temporary rule-making mechanisms that could be employed to address timely issues, such as the safety of scientists on NIH projects.

What’s frustrating about the NIH’s lackadaisical approach to gender violence is that this topic has been on Collins’ agenda for at least two years. In 2016, he co-authored a letter to Nature indicating that the NIH was actively taking steps to address gender violence in science. Had he started working on this issue then, the NIH could have already proceeded with the lengthy rule-making process that he described recently.

Scientists have had enough. BethAnn McLaughlin, Julie Libarkin, and Tisha Bohr started an online petition asking the NIH to stake a stand on gender violence. We agree that it needs to do this.

Gender violence in the scientific workplace has harmed the careers, the livelihood, and the personhood of women scientists because of the misconduct of powerful and prominent NIH-funded scientists. It is time for the NIH, the world’s largest funder of science, to follow the leadership of the NSF and stop funding perpetrators of gender violence.

Kelsey Priest is a fifth-year M.D./Ph.D. candidate at Oregon Health and Science University and the OHSU-Portland State University School of Public Health in Portland, Ore. Caroline King is a second year M.D./Ph.D. student at OHSU.


Differences between NSF and NIH in sexual harassment/gender violence policies

(Note: Click here to download a PDF of this comparison table.)

Reporting requirements for sexual harassment/gender violence
(NSF’s definitions for the italicized terms are listed below)
  National Science Foundation National Institutes of Health
A principal or co-principal investigator is placed on administrative leave Required to report to the agency Only if there is a status change in PI/co-PI
A principal or co-principal investigator has any administrative action relating to any finding or determination Required to report to the agency Only if there is a status change in PI/co-PI
A principal or co-principal investigator is under investigation for alleged violation of awardee policies Required to report to the agency Only if there is a status change in PI/co-PI
A principal or co-principal investigator is under investigation for alleged violation of codes of conduct, statutes, regulations, or executive orders relating to sexual harassment, other forms of harassment, or sexual assault Required to report to the agency Only if there is a status change in PI/co-PI

 

Reporting and review process for sexual harassment/gender violence
  National Science Foundation National Institutes of Health
Timeline Must be submitted within 10 business days of institutional or civil finding None
Process • Complaint reviewed using four criteria
• Consultation with organizational representative
• Decision about award
None

NSF’s definitions

Sexual harassment: May include but is not limited to gender or sex-based harassment, unwelcome sexual attention, sexual coercion, or creating a hostile environment, as set forth in organizational policies or codes of conduct, statutes, regulations, or executive orders.

Other forms of harassment: Non-gender or non-sex-based harassment of individuals protected under federal civil rights laws, as set forth in organizational policies or codes of conduct, statutes, regulations, or executive orders.

Finding or determination: The final disposition of a matter involving sexual harassment or other form of harassment under organizational policies and processes, to include the exhaustion of permissible appeals exercised by the principal or co-principal investigator or a conviction of a sexual offense in a criminal court of law.

Administrative leave or administrative action: Any temporary/interim suspension or permanent removal of the principal or co-principal investigator, or any administrative action imposed on the principal or co-principal investigator by the awardee under organizational policies or codes of conduct, statutes, regulations, or executive orders, relating to activities, including but not limited to the following: teaching, advising, mentoring, research, management or administrative duties, or presence on campus.

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  • What gendered violence in science? I know many people – young & old, male & female- who work in, teach or study scientific subjects, and l haven’t heard anyone complaining of being the target of sex-based violence (or even discrimination in hiring or assignments), nor have l heard bragging by individuals who get away with targeting coworkers, students or teachers based on sex.

    Maybe STAT should stick to subject matter that has demonstrable scientific evidence.

  • I have been in science for quite some time, and I have never seen any violence of any kind. Truthfully however, there have been times when I have wanted to see some researchers duke it out.

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