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NIH’s Lax Effort to Stop Harassment ‘Unacceptable': Lawmakers

Aug. 7, 2018, 9:02 PM

The NIH has “largely failed” to stop sexual harassment at research institutions, two key Democratic appropriators said.

“Federal funding should not support laboratories and institutions where workplace harassment is allowed to continue,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) wrote in a letter released Aug. 7.

That federal funding must go through Murray and DeLauro, who are the top Democrats on the congressional panels that set spending levels for medical research. That money—more than $30 billion a year—in turn, goes to 2,500 universities, medical schools, and other research organizations and more than 300,000 researchers.

Their letter to Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is uncharacteristically critical of an agency that lawmakers on the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies tend to praise effusively. The subcommittees have worked to increase funding by $7 billion over the last three spending cycles to $37.3 billion.

The NIH is drafting a new policy manual chapter on sexual harassment in the workplace and will contract with third-party investigators to make independent judgments about complaints, Lawrence A. Tabak said in June. As NIH principal deputy director, Tabak is the agency’s second-in-command behind Collins. “If we don’t correct this problem, we will continue to damage the scientific enterprise of this nation,” he said during an advisory panel meeting. The agency didn’t reply immediately to a request for comment.

The letter follows a report released this summer from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which found sexual harassment is common in academic science, engineering, and medicine. Specifically, the report said 58 percent of women in academic faculty and staff positions experienced sexual harassment.

Collins has said in the past the agency can and should “herd the cats” or exert influence through the power of its billions of dollars in grant funding. “We herd the cats by moving their food,” he said at a recent workshop on artificial intelligence. Collins hasn’t replied to Murray and DeLauro’s letter as of press time.

Collins’ leadership is critical to ensure research environments stay harassment-free, Murray and DeLauro said. Their comments focused on the extramural scientists who take up more than 80 percent of the NIH’s $37.3 billion budget and not the intramural ones who work directly for the agency.

“While NIH has taken steps to measure, monitor and address intramural harassment,” they wrote, “the agency has largely failed to take steps to hold its awardee institutions accountable for fostering a safe workplace environment for extramural harassment.”

The NIH issued a grants notice in 2015 to state the expectation that grantee institutions comply with civil rights laws and provide equal access to the opportunity to participate in NIH supported research, programs, conferences and other activities. But Murray and DeLauro said the notice doesn’t go far enough because it only requires an institution to sign, date and mail a compliance document to the Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights. “This lack of engagement from NIH is particularly unacceptable in light of disturbing news reports that cases of sexual harassment in the academic sciences often involve high profile faculty offenders,” they wrote.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at jbaumann@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Randy Kubetin at rkubetin@bloomberglaw.com