National Institutes of Health axes 75 grants over harassment

Tally of cases since 2018 largely stems from anonymous hotline and mostly involves sexual misconduct

June 15, 2021
Referee showing a red card
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The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has cut off grant support for 75 researchers for sexual harassment and other kinds of personal misbehaviour since 2018, according to new data.

The penalties arose from more than 300 sexual harassment and behavioural complaints filed against NIH-funded scientists, the agency said in an update on its efforts to fight the problem.

The NIH is the largest single provider of federal money for basic research, and it has long been under pressure to help reduce widespread rates of sexual harassment and abuse in academic science.

The agency issued the data as an update to a 2019 report by the NIH’s panel of outside expert advisers, known as the Advisory Committee to the Director, that had set forth a series of recommendations on the matter.

Many of the allegations that led the NIH to take action against the 75 scientists arose from the suggestion that the agency create a hotline, with a web-based option, for anonymous reports of allegations of misbehaviour.

Those reports led to the removal of a scientist from an NIH grant in nearly a quarter of the cases, and the scientist’s removal from serving on NIH peer-review grant assessment panels in 40 per cent of the cases.

Those numbers reflect a lower threshold of tolerance for misbehaviour by participants in the grant awards process, said Michael Lauer, the NIH deputy director in charge of extramural research.

“We want to maintain the integrity of peer review above all,” Dr Lauer told the Advisory Committee to the Director.

The overall idea, he said, was for the NIH to treat behavioural misconduct, including sexual harassment, as seriously as it treats any other kind of research misconduct, such as plagiarism and falsification of data.

Prior to 2018, the NIH had not removed any researcher from a grant award for reasons of sexual misconduct.

Dr Lauer nevertheless acknowledged remaining concerns, including the ability of researchers accused of misconduct to quit rather than face an inquiry and then move to another institution without incurring any negative finding or penalty.

Of the 312 cases the NIH investigated, the scientist departed their institution almost 20 per cent of the time, according to the NIH figures.

The NIH is sharing its information about harassment cases with the Department of Health and Human Services, of which it is a unit, Dr Lauer said. Other NIH officials, however, said they had no information about their ability to share findings with other federal grant agencies.

While sexual harassment was overwhelmingly the leading reason for the 75 removals since 2018, other leading behaviours that led to losses of NIH grant funding included racial discrimination and bullying.

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