WASHINGTON — The National Institutes of Health on Thursday apologized for its past failures to recognize and address the culture of sexual harassment that has impacted scientists for generations.
“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,” NIH Director Francis Collins said in a statement.
Sexual harassment in science, Collins said, is “morally indefensible, it’s unacceptable, and it presents a major obstacle that is keeping women from achieving their rightful place in science.”
“We are concerned that NIH has been part of the problem,” Collins said. “We are determined to become part of the solution.”
The announcement comes amid an ongoing conversation about sexual harassment and discrimination in industries across the country, including science and medicine. The scientific community — in which men disproportionately hold leadership positions — has come under fire for not doing enough to stem sexual harassment in labs, universities, and hospitals. Several research agencies, including the NIH, announced last year that they would reevaluate their policies to reduce sexually inappropriate behavior.
A landmark report released last year by the National Academies found that sexual harassment runs rampant in academic science and medicine. The report found that sexual harassment in academia is far more common among students in the sciences than their peers in non-STEM fields. In one survey, nearly half of female medical students said they had been harassed by faculty or staff.
The authors outlined steps to begin to address the issues. Among those recommendations: Treating sexual harassment as a violation of research integrity. The report also said the scientific community should push state and federal lawmakers to consider banning confidentiality agreements when a harasser is sanctioned and reaches a settlement with an employer.
Scientific organizations started to take notice. The American Association for the Advancement of Science adopted a policy last fall that allows the organization to revoke the membership of elected fellows in cases of proven scientific misconduct or serious ethical breaches — including sexual and gender-based harassment. The report also led the National Science Foundation in September to announce a rule requiring research institutions it funds to report findings of sexual harassment to the agency. The NIH faced pressure to do the same.
The NIH already requires grantee institutions to “develop and implement policies and practices that foster a harassment-free environment,” Collins said. In the case of investigators accused of inappropriate behavior — including sexual harassment or assault — the NIH requires research institutions that dismiss and attempt to replace researchers to notify the agency. The agency can also terminate grants if it determines the new arrangements are “not acceptable.”
As part of efforts to improve the NIH’s culture, the agency established a committee that met for the first time in February and will submit interim recommendations on eliminating sexual harassment in June and final recommendations in December.
In his statement, Collins cited the advocacy of BethAnn McLaughlin, a neurology professor at Vanderbilt University who spoke at the February meeting. McLaughlin is a leader in the the #MeTooSTEM movement — an advocacy campaign driven largely by women in science seeking to highlight the systemic personal trauma and career obstacles caused by sexual harassment throughout the research world. McLaughin has been among the most vocal critics of NIH and other major scientific institutions for not doing enough to stem sexual harassment.