NIH's Anti-Sexual Harassment Policies for Awardees

Revised August 16, 2019


David Kosub:             Hello and welcome to another edition of NIH's All About Grants podcast. I'm your host, David Kosub, with the NIH's Office of Extramural Research. A real, serious, and longstanding issue exists within the biomedical research enterprise, and that is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, generally speaking, can be committed by anyone, at any time, and can include unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

And here at NIH, we are aiming to bolster our efforts to address this issue within our authority at all stages, including within the extramural research community. In Feb 2019, leadership here at NIH released a strong statement, which we encourage everyone to read, that discusses our intent behind changing the culture of sexual harassment wherever NIH research is conducted.

And that's what brings us here today. We have with us Dr. Jodi Black, she is the Deputy Director for the NIH's Office of Extramural Research, and she's going to be talking about the expectations NIH has for assuring a safe and harassment-free work environment for all, as well as what institutions, investigators, and others in the community need to be aware of regarding the existing policies here at NIH, how to notify NIH with a potential issue, and what we do after hearing these notifications. Thank you for being with us, Jodi.

Jodi Black:                 Sure, you're welcome.

David Kosub:             Alright, let's start off by having you first tell us a bit about what led NIH to make this statement in February 2019.

Jodi Black:                 The statement was a statement of apology, saying that we apologize for taking so long to acknowledge and address the climate and culture that has caused such harm. The statement was really clear in acknowledging that sexual harassment in the sciences is morally indefensible and it's unacceptable. And it presents obstacles that are keeping women from achieving their rightful place in science. We are losing women in the scientific field because of this issue, and that is not good. And, you know, this is not a new problem, many of us have experienced this personally.

Recently there was a milestone National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report that found between 20% and 50% of female students in science, engineering, and medicine had experienced some form of harassment, including sexual  harassment, from faculty and other staff. And more than 50% of faculty had indicated they had experienced some form of harassment also.

There's a lot of increasing attention and energy around this issue in general and in the scientific community, if you think of the MeToo movement, and MeTooSTEM, and recently I read about a new movement that's called Do Better, all around issues of harassment and sexual harassment mitigation.

We also know that women are about half of the assistant professors, however, they are underrepresented in leadership positions. So we know that we don't have a pipeline problem, and we are assuming, at least in part, that harassment issues are a part of why women are not staying in science or making it to the top of the leadership positions in academia. NIH is determined to collaborate with all of our communities to stop sexual harassment and all harassment or discrimination of any kind, and help to facilitate awareness and drive the culture that is necessary to make these changes.

David Kosub:             Do you feel like this problem is worse in the sciences than elsewhere?

Jodi Black:                 No, it's not worse, it's different. Recently there was a case in the newspaper about Walmart being on the receiving end of a gender discrimination lawsuit. So this is not a problem just for science but it's really bad, in medicine and engineering it tends to be worse.

David Kosub:             Is it worth asking what sexual harassment is, or is it just something that you recognize it when you see it?

Jodi Black:                 Let me just be clear that harassment and discrimination, of which sexual harassment is a component, is not just about women. It happens more frequently to women but men can be victims too. Harassment as noted earlier, as unwanted sexual attention that could be verbal or physical, coercion, quid pro quo type of relationship development, and gender harassment is also a serious problem. That can be recognized as sexist, hostility, put-downs, or biased, very inappropriate comments that are often veiled in humor, retaliation and women are generally made to feel unwelcome in these circumstances.

David Kosub:             Alright, well let's talk about accountability because that's an incredibly important part of this and especially for people who don't know where to go. If someone feels like they're not receiving justice, they may continue to endure the issue or leave it altogether, can you speak to this?

Jodi Black:                 Yes, we know that the impact of harassment has been very negative on women; we have lost women. They have so often to avoid harassers, they have switched labs or they just quit altogether. That is losing lots of opportunity and lots of time, so we need to protect folks from those kinds of situations. And so that's what NIH is trying to change now, it's not the intention for one's career to be an endurance test. That's part of the reason we issued such a strong public statement, where we in fact acknowledge that NIH has been part of the problem.

We've kind of been perceived as, maybe justifiably, as sort of sitting back and saying it's not really our problem, it's the institution's problem because it's the institution's employees, and that is technically correct, but it's not right. We recognize as being the largest funder of biomedical research, we also have responsibilities to ensure that the environment where the research is happening is free of this kind of activity, and it's conducive to high-quality research. Actually, that is part of the grants policy statement: the environment must be conducive to high-quality work. If somebody is scared all the time, you can't do high-quality work. So, we're taking ownership of this, at this point.

David Kosub:             Along the lines of ownership, what does it look like for NIH to be part of the solution?

Jodi Black:                 We have decided that within our legal constrictions that we're going to play a much larger role in identifying instances of harassment and acting on them. In the last year, we've become aware of dozens of harassment issues that are occurring in academia and we find out either by the victims themselves or through anonymous complaints or a third party, and sometimes from the news, which is really the worst way for us to find out.

But when we do find out, we take immediate action. We send letters to the vice president for research, we explain what we've heard, if we know people involved we list grants that they may be involved in overseeing, and we ask the institution to investigate the issue and respond to us with the results of their investigation, as well as with their policies and processes and their accountability activities. They're required to adhere to these issues, it's actually a requirement by law. Discrimination on the basis of sex is actually illegal. And so gender harassment is sexual harassment, which is illegal.

David Kosub:             You sort of touched on requirements for institutions, can you tell us more about these? Can you be more specific?

Jodi Black:                 The requirements for institutions are laid out in our Grants Policy Statement, and we require that every academic institution that receives funding from us has systems, policies, and procedures in place to manage research activities in accordance with those standards, which means they have to comply with federal laws, regulations, and policies that protect the rights and safety of individuals working on NIH-funded projects. We need to see that there are assurances, that they're in compliance with civil rights protections. This includes sexual harassment.

We ask that the grantees must have certified that they have on file with the Office of Civil Rights an assurance of compliance with the statutes described in the civil rights protections provision. And you may know the Office of Civil Rights is responsible for enforcing federal civil rights laws and it provides resources to agencies and to grantees to address concerns regarding potential violations.

David Kosub:             From the institution's side, what does it actually look like for them to inform NIH?

Jodi Black:                 We expect institutions to proactively notify us of any changes in a grant award. For example, if they have an issue with a principal investigator or other senior key personnel on the award, where they have to make some changes, they need to notify us immediately, and they need to request approval of those changes. If an administrator at an institution has to take disciplinary action, for example, based on a charge or finding of harassment, (and those disciplinary actions could look something like restricting access to campus or to a laboratory space or restricting ability to interact with students or placing the principal investigator on an extended administrative leave, where they cannot perform their duties on campus), all of those restrictions should immediately be reported to NIH because that means they can no longer serve in their rightful capacity as principal investigator and the institution needs to request permission to change the principal investigator. And NIH will work very closely, the goal is to help the institution change the PI, so NIH will work very closely with the institution to do that.

But the institutions do need to seek advanced approval, and those requests should be submitted to their grants management officer.

As a follow up to that and in alignment with that, NIH has certain expectations that institutions do under these circumstances and to prevent harassment, we expect the institutions to develop and implement policies and practices that foster a harassment-free environment, to maintain clear and unambiguous professional codes of conduct, to ensure all their employees are fully aware and regularly reminded of applicable laws, regulations, policies, and codes of conduct, to be in compliance with the Office of Civil Rights Title IX requirements, to provide an easy process to report sexual harassment, and to provide protection from retaliation ' that's very important. We expect institutions to respond promptly to any allegations to ensure the immediate safety for all of those involved and to investigate the allegations and take the appropriate actions and sanctions if necessary, and to inform NIH of any of these administrative actions. As soon as you know an action is going to take place, we need to know right away, we need to know even before you've made a final decision, we'll help you work through the issues. And in addition, any recipients of conference grants, those are R13  grants, we must see that the funding must take steps to maintain a safe and respectful environment for all attendees.  

David Kosub:             Back to the statement that NIH leadership released, it encouraged folks to notify NIH if there is a concern about sexual harassment affecting an NIH-funded project. Can you speak to this more, how can they notify us?

Jodi Black:                 There's a couple of ways. If their institutional officials are aware, they should contact their NIH grants management officer about the impacted awards and they should request a change in either their principal investigator or any senior key personnel, or to notify us of any issues impacting the award at all. Any concerns about any issue impacting an award, they should let us know. We'll help work through it, we will not try to take the award away.

There's a couple other ways individuals experiencing harassment can contact us. We have a publicly available mailbox called, and individuals can send information to that mailbox anonymously, but we do need the names of the folks in question or of concern because that's the way we'll tell institutions they have to do an investigation. We also have a webform that's available that you can find on the Anti-Sexual Harassment website in NIH. If you Google that you'll come to the face page with a big blue button that says 'Find Help,' if you click on that you can navigate to a webform where you, again, can fill in the questions there anonymously, but we ask that you give us enough information about the offender, so we can ask the institution to do a good investigation. But as soon as we learn of an allegation of any type, we're going to react and we're going to send a letter to the vice president for research and ask for information, and ask for policies and processes.

David Kosub:             So, before we go, would you like to leave our audience with any final thoughts on this issue?

Jodi Black:                 I'd like to let you know that this is just the beginning. We've set up an advisory committee to the NIH Director to help make recommendations on what else NIH can do to change the culture and to end sexual harassment. Final recommendations are expected in December.

We expect these recommendations will reinforce the goals that have been identified internally. We'd like to see a demonstration of accountability and transparency; we expect to be clarifying expectations for institutions and investigators to ensure a safe workplace and inform the agency; we'd like to ensure we're providing clear channels of communication with us at NIH; and we want to make sure we're listening to victims and survivors and incorporating their perspectives into any future actions.

David Kosub:             Wonderful. Thank you very much Jodi, and we greatly appreciate the opportunity to hear more about this issue. And to reiterate a couple points she raised earlier, please do not hesitate to contact us about any potential issues related to sexual harassment affecting an NIH-funded activity. You can do so via or via our webform, available on our Anti-Sexual Harassment website. This has been David Kosub, with NIH's All About Grants. Thank you very much.