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Congress Strengthens NIH’s Ability to Address Harassment in NIH-Funded Activities

Today's post was first published on the NIH Open Mike blog and co-authored by Dr. Michael Lauer, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research. We discuss the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022, signed into law by Congress on March 15, which strengthens anti-harassment reporting requirements for NIH-supported institutions. Notably, the provision goes beyond sexual harassment to address workplace harassment in all its forms, helping to foster cultures of inclusive excellence.

The COSWD Office has a history of leading NIH anti-harassment efforts to ensure safe, respectful work environments. For example, to better understand the landscape of harassment and organizational climate within the NIH, we administered the inaugural NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey in 2019 as part of the NIH Anti-Harassment Program.

Our survey materials are publicly available, so other scientific institutions can assess their organizational culture associated with harassment and implement evidence-informed solutions.

Thank you for reading about this significant policy change, which accelerates NIH's anti-harassment efforts to ensure that everyone can thrive in biomedical science.

The recently passed Consolidated Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2022 includes “Section 239,” which is a milestone in our efforts to ensure safe working conditions for people engaged in NIH-supported research. The law requires NIH grant recipients to notify us when their senior key personnel are removed from their position or are otherwise disciplined due to concerns about harassment, bullying, retaliation, or hostile working conditions. This is a major step in our continued effort to change the culture of harassment in biomedical science.

The NIH Grants Policy Statement Section 4, states that NIH recipient institutions are expected to provide safe and healthful working conditions for their employees and foster work environments conducive to high-quality research. Towards this end, and in response to a 2018 National Academies report and recommendations from the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director, we have taken the following steps:

  • NIH expects recipients requesting prior approval for changing a principal investigator, key personnel, or recipient institution to include mention as to whether these requests are related to concerns about the safety and/or work environment, including issues related to sexual harassment or bullying (see this post and NIH Grants Policy Statement Sections and
  • Established an agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights for information sharing to facilitate case handling (see this post)
  • Updated our anti-harassment website to encompass the range of threats to safe and respectful workplaces at institutions receiving NIH funding (see this post)
  • Administered the inaugural NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey in 2019 and developed resources such as a findings report, infographics, and survey methodology institutions can adopt as they deem appropriate to their needs.

These and other related efforts have led to more than 400 notifications received between 2018 to March 2022. NIH worked with funded institutions on 112 confirmed findings of harassment, resulting in institutions removing 92 individuals from NIH grants and taking other actions for the remaining cases. More data are available here.

So, as described in a statement issued today by NIH Acting Director Lawrence Tabak, "While NIH has made progress toward our goal of ending harassment in biomedical research, NIH lacked clear authority to require funded institutions to report to NIH whether personnel changes to an NIH grant are related to harassment, only that they should report it. This limited NIH's awareness of when harassment was affecting NIH-supported activities, and therefore NIH’s ability to take necessary action to ensure appropriate grant stewardship." With the implementation of Section 239, that changes today.

As of July 9, 2022 (see NOT-OD-22-129), recipient institutions must report within 30 days of when "individuals identified as a principal investigator or as key personnel in an NIH notice of award are removed from their position or are otherwise disciplined due to concerns about harassment, bullying, retaliation, or hostile working conditions" the following to our dedicated web form. The following information should be reported:

  • Name of the Authorized Organization Representative submitting the notification
blue silhouetted people standing in a line
  • Name of the individual of concern
  • Description of the concerns
  • Action(s) taken
  • Anticipated impact on the NIH-funded award(s)

We will then consult with the institution. If necessary, we may take additional actions ranging from changing personnel, restricting award funds, or suspending or terminating the grant as outlined in the NIH Grants Policy Statement.

This is a major step in helping us continue ensuring the safety for all involved in NIH-supported research. As Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIH Acting Director, noted in his statement, "Wherever NIH research activities take place, our priority will always be to do what we can to eliminate harassment and ensure that the integrity of scientific endeavor is never compromised by the fundamental injustice of workplace harassment." If you have concerns about harassment, discrimination, and other forms of inappropriate conduct at your institution, please find help here.