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  • Washington Highlights

    NIH Advisory Committee Approves Final Report on Ending Sexual Harassment

    Amanda Field, Specialist, Science Policy
    Stephen Heinig, Director, Science Policy

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) held its last meeting of the year Dec. 12-13. The headline of the meeting was the report from the ACD Working Group on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment, presented by Francis Cuss, MB, BChir, FRCP, executive vice president and chief scientific officer at Bristol-Myers Squibb (retired); Kristina Johnson, PhD, chancellor at the State University of New York; and Carrie Wolinetz, PhD, acting chief of staff and associate director for science policy at the NIH.

    The working group emphasized the importance of treating professional misconduct, which includes the inappropriate behaviors in sexual harassment as well as harassment/bullying, as seriously as research misconduct. While the definition of research misconduct is restricted to falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism, the outcomes from professional misconduct are no less impactful and deleterious to science and so should be treated as seriously.

    The working group categorized 23 recommendations under four themes:

    1. Increase transparency and accountability in reporting of professional misconduct, especially sexual misconduct.
    2. Establish a mechanism for restorative justice.
    3. Ensure safe, diverse, and inclusive research and training environments.
    4. Create systemwide change to ensure safe, diverse, and inclusive research environments.

    While the presentation covered the recommendations in each theme at a relatively high level, the report details suggestions for how the NIH, NIH-funded institutions, and the broader biomedical research community can carry out these recommendations.  

    Recommendations of note to the NIH include:

    • Establishing a process by which institutions can report findings of professional misconduct within two weeks of the issuance of the finding.
    • Providing new incentives and funding opportunities to restore the careers of targets and other affected individuals.
    • Requiring grantee institutions to conduct anti-sexual harassment training in a manner parallel to the training currently in place about responsible conduct of research.

    NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD was “supportive of these solid recommendations” and said in a statement following the meeting that the “NIH will make every effort to adhere to the vision of the working group.” The NIH expressed determination to begin implementation of the recommendations that are under its legal authority immediately and to investigate how it may move forward with the others. One recommendation that may require policy change is that the NIH should require that NIH-funded institutions report confirmed harassers to the NIH.

    The report was well-received by the ACD, though some committee members suggested that some recommendations as they were presented at the meeting were vague and that the NIH should be helping victims who are struggling right now.

    Also at the ACD meeting, NIH deputy director for extramural research, Mike Lauer, MD, presented on the status of efforts to help early stage investigators (ESIs). He reported that the agency funded more than 1300 ESIs in 2019, which exceeded its target number for the second year. The NIH is also introducing a new R01 basic research project grant specifically for ESIs to help new investigators initiate independent research in part by not allowing preliminary data as part of the application. The award will be named for Stephen Katz, MD, PhD, a widely admired institute director who died in 2018.

    Dr. Lauer also updated the ACD on the working group on foreign influences on research integrity, but he did not report on any new investigations or findings.

    Hannah Valantine, MD, NIH chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, and Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University and ACD member (and a past chair of the AAMC) presented on the NIH Distinguished Scholars Program and other initiatives advancing diversity in biomedical research, emphasizing the importance of cohort-focused interventions.

    The Working Group on Artificial Intelligence also presented their draft recommendations to the ACD.