Sciences Address Harassment; #MeTooSTEM Wants Funds Cut Too (1)

Dec. 14, 2018, 6:16 PMUpdated: Dec. 14, 2018, 7:51 PM

The #MeToo movement has crept quickly and rapidly across industries since its explosion over a year ago, and the science professions haven’t been excluded. The National Institutes of Health is revamping its sexual harassment policies in response to workers speaking out, but some say that’s not enough.

The NIH funds almost $37.3 billion in medical research each year, according to its website, much of that going to private research entities such as Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Advocates for the #MeTooSTEM movement, a Twitter hashtag dealing with harassment in scientific settings, want to see funding yanked immediately from problematic workplaces.

The exact count of how many people faced harassment are murky, but at least 40 cases relating to workplace harassment in the sciences have been filed in 2018, according to Michigan State University professor Julie Libarkin, who tracks #MeTooSTEM reports. Some plaintiffs have already won in court, such as the University of Minnesota doctoral candidate who sued over harassment by a supervisor in the field.

NIH’s Collins: Problem Ignored Too Long

NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said the issue is a “critical” one “that has been ignored for too long.” That means “not just coming up with processes and reporting mechanisms,” but changing the culture, Collins said at a Dec. 13 advisory committee meeting.

The institutes rolled out an education campaign and will distribute a workplace climate survey to about 44,000 employees in January, NIH Chief Officer of Scientific Workforce Diversity Hannah Valantine said at the meeting. The results of the survey will be published in June 2019 and will focus on the health of workplaces at the institute and center level.

“This is not a report that will sit on the shelf,” she said.

The NIH also is forming a working group to discuss workplace discrimination issues, Carrie Wolinetz, NIH associate director for science policy, said at the meeting.

“We need to admit that we are part of the problem, and think about how we change that to be part of the solution,” she said. “We are willing to forgive a lot of bad behavior if we perceive someone to be a good scientist, and that is not OK.”

Cut the Funding

The NIH controls grant funding but has limited oversight of the funded workplaces. For example, the agency can’t ask questions about anything beyond NIH-funded work at a non-NIH institution. It also can’t “unilaterally debar or suspend an investigator or an institution,” according to agency policy.

The agency can slash funding if it’s confirmed that a principal researcher is “fostering a hostile work environment, including a finding of sexual harassment,” NIH spokeswoman Renate Myles said in an email statement.

In fact, they already have, Myles said. She declined to speak on specific cases but said the agency prefers to replace the principal researcher if possible, “to allow scientific progress of a peer-reviewed project and allow other personnel working on the grant, including in some cases the victim of harassment, to continue their research.”

The new policies aren’t sufficient, and there’s enough data to show that a problem exists, NIH researcher Juan Pablo Ruiz said at the meeting.

“Enough is enough,” Ruiz said. “The NIH, for what I have learned, has no power over culture change, but it does control the money.”

Pulling funding is “not punitive” but “protective,” Ruiz said.

The meeting concluded without any listed follow-up action, other than the report, but the debate continued online with the #MeTooSTEM hashtag.

“Sexual harassment is a major factor driving women out of science,” Wolinetz said. “That is not only a loss for women, it is a loss for science.”

(Updated to reflect additional reporting.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Cathleen O'Connor Schoultz at cschoultz@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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