Francisco Ayala Resigned After a University Inquiry Found Him Guilty of Sexual Harassment. But What Happened to the Federal Grants He Received?

What happens to taxpayer money when scientists are faced with accusations or findings of wrongdoing?
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The Francisco J. Ayala Science Library, which has since been renamed the Science Library.

The Francisco J. Ayala Science Library, which has since been renamed the Science Library.

For years, it was hard for aspiring biologists at the University of California–Irvine to miss just how important Francisco Ayala was to their chosen field—and their school. Ayala's name appeared all over the buildings they visited most. They took classes at the Francisco J. Ayala School of Biological Sciences. They studied at the Francisco J. Ayala Science Library. And if they needed some extra financial help to do that exciting study while they were in grad school? They could apply for an Ayala graduate fellowship.

No more. In June, UC–Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman announced that a university investigation had substantiated several sexual harassment claims against Ayala, then a biology professor at the school. Ayala would be resigning, and the school took his name off of the buildings, scholarships, and faculty positions he had helped to fund.

What the school didn't announce was what would happen to another important venture attached to Ayala: its Maximizing Access to Research Careers program, which aims to help Latino, black, Native American, and other underrepresented undergraduates get into graduate school and launch their careers in biomedicine. This year, MARC received $736,000 from the taxpayer-funded National Institutes of Health. Under Ayala's leadership, MARC at Irvine garnered more than $7.6 million, over 14 years, from the federal government. Although it wasn't his own money, in a way, he'd helped the university to fund MARC too.

As the science community undergoes its own #MeToo movement, it's run into a unique problem: Often, accused harassers have received federal grants to conduct studies or train students. What happens to that taxpayer money when scientists are faced with accusations, investigations by their employers, or findings of wrongdoing?

Right now, there's no standard policy that applies across all situations and government agencies. Only one federal science agency, the National Science Foundation, even requires universities to inform officials if they find a grant recipient guilty of harassing others, or if they put a grant recipient on leave because of a harassment inquiry. The NIH, which is much larger, requires universities to tell them if a professor leading a grant can’t do so anymore—for example, because he’s on leave—but universities don’t need to say why.*

Meanwhile, activists are calling for federal agencies to withhold funding from alleged harassers altogether. "The only thing that's going to change the way that we treat the most vulnerable people in our scientific [society] is law and money," says BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University. McLaughlin has been vocal about the many changes she wants to see in how universities deal with accused sexual harassers; she started a petition to get the NIH to withhold funding and awards from scientists who have been investigated for claims of sexual misconduct and who have settled or resigned before inquiries were finished. "When funding agencies start pulling money away from institutions that are harboring harassers," she says, "then universities will start taking [the allegations] seriously."

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Ayala moved from Spain to the United States in 1961, when he was in his late 20s, to get his doctorate in genetics at Columbia University. He joined the faculty at UC–Irvine in 1987. Over his career in biology, he won major national awards for his research into evolution and an infectious disease called Chagas. He was known for his work in engaging the public, especially Christians, in understanding evolution. He also donated millions to UC–Irvine, proceeds from vineyards he owned on the Sacramento River, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Beginning in November of 2017, two professors, an assistant dean, and a graduate student in Ayala's department submitted formal complaints alleging inappropriate remarks and conduct. One complaint, from a female professor, claimed Ayala told her he thought she would "have an orgasm" during one of her presentations because she was so enthusiastic. Another said he would kiss the complainant and rub her sides, underneath her jacket, when greeting her.

Francisco Ayala.

Francisco Ayala.

The university placed Ayala on involuntary leave starting on November 20th. Officials then allowed him back on campus beginning March 1st, 2018, with restrictions, such as a prohibition on him interacting with most folks in the biology department, and an offer of a similar-sized office outside of the School of Biological Sciences. These details come from an internal report, dated May 16th, 2018, which Pacific Standard obtained. (Separately, Science obtained the same report and made it briefly public, before taking it down.) The report never says if Ayala took the university up on the office offer, thus moving back on campus. In any case, it states internal investigators' conclusion: A "preponderance of evidence" substantiates most of the complainants' claims.

On June 28th, Gillman, the UC–Irvine chancellor, issued a somewhat veiled announcement, saying the university had found "a number of sexual harassment claims" against Ayala to be credible. Ayala didn't answer emailed queries from Pacific Standard about whether he had any response to the allegations against him, but at the time of Gillman's announcement, he released a statement to the Los Angeles Times and Science, expressing his "regret that what I have always thought of as the good manners of a European gentleman—to greet women colleagues warmly, with a kiss to both cheeks, to compliment them on their beauty—made colleagues I respect uncomfortable."

A public records request shows that, by July 2nd, NIH officials had learned about the investigation and its results.

"I have been informed that Dr. Ayala is no longer an employee of UC Irvine," the grant's NIH officer, Luis Cubano, wrote to Marlene de la Cruz and Luis Mota-Bravo, two members of the UC–Irvine biology department who had co-led MARC with Ayala since 2015, and Shelley Scallan, a grants officer for the university. "Please submit the change of contact PD [program director] as soon as possible," Cubano wrote.

After that, the NIH appeared to have to do a little hounding to get UC–Irvine officials to respond. In the documents, there are three more emails, with no replies, from the NIH to Ayala's colleagues. Finally, on July 26th, Cubano wrote: "I need the change of contact PI [principal investigator, which is similar to a program director] letter today." Cubano gets a response on the same day and, on July 27th, there's new paperwork that makes Mota-Bravo the main leader instead. Mota-Bravo, de la Cruz, and several press officers for UC–Irvine didn't respond to emails and calls asking about what happened to the program during the inquiry into Ayala and his involuntary leave.

It's unclear when and how the NIH found out about the investigation against Ayala. Did UC–Irvine tell the NIH about the scandal? Or did the NIH learn through another source? A spokesman for the NIH's Office of Extramural Research says the office doesn't comment about particular scientists or grants. UC–Irvine spokespeople didn't answer any questions. Universities aren't specifically required to tell funding agencies about harassment investigations until something happens that makes it impossible for a faculty member to lead a grant—for example, because they are no longer employed by the university. But many scientists and lawyers are now arguing alerting government funders is the right thing to do, and should be mandated.

"I'd like to see anyone who goes on leave have their funding agencies be notified," says McLaughlin, the Vanderbilt neuroscientist.

"It will help deter sexual harassment if universities have to worry that covering it up will result not just in local scandal and lawsuits but losing government funding," Ann Olivarius, a lawyer who has worked for decades on cases involving sexual harassment at universities, said in a statement. "I back efforts to make reporting mandatory."

Some say there's a case for removing accused harassers from leadership on federal grants even sooner. "What if someone is doing experimental lab work and needs sign-offs on purchasing and that means interacting with their abuser, in order to do it?" says Kate Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois­ who has studied sexual harassment in science extensively. "There should be a mechanism for removing someone temporarily and maybe, at the end, there's no negative finding, and so then they get put back on." But in our interview, Clancy was unsure of what specific timing might work best. She wants to see some scientific work into the question, studies that would tell policymakers what's best for victims and wastes the least taxpayer money.

The National Science Foundation, which gave out $5.2 billion in research grants in 2017, has spent the past several months developing a "Tell us about harassment cases" requirement. The foundation's new policy mandates that universities notify it when a grant leader is placed on leave, is forbidden from teaching, or has other actions taken against them because of harassment claims. The new policy is intended "to bolster our commitment to a safe research environment," according to an official announcement. It goes into effect this month.

On the other hand, the NIH ($24 billion in grants in 2017) wasn't considering any changes to its existing requirements for grantees, a spokesman for the NIH Office of Extramural Research wrote in an email in August. The email contained a link to a section of the NIH's Grants Policy Statement that deals with "research misconduct." Some scientific societies have defined research misconduct to include harassment, but, technically, the NIH's definition only covers plagiarism and making up data, not interpersonal behavior. In any case, the Grants Policy Statement says that a university that receives NIH grants is "responsible for the actions of its employees and other research collaborators" and "must promptly obtain NIH approval of any intended change of PD/PI or other senior/key personnel." In September, NIH director Francis Collins released a statement saying he planned to bring the issue up with the National Science and Technology Council, which coordinates all of the government’s science agencies.

The NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland.

The NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland.

The NIH is under some pressure to do more. In August, Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) sent Collins a letter complaining that the NIH has "largely failed" to hold the universities it funds "accountable for fostering safe workplace environments." The letter asked for a response by August 17th. As of August 23rd, the politicians have received an acknowledgement, but no detailed reply, a spokesman for DeLauro says.

There was one expert who didn't agree with the idea of mandating that universities report when they hit certain milestones in investigating alleged harassers. Kristina Larsen is a lawyer specializing in workplace discrimination, especially in universities. Before she started her own firm, she worked in employee relations at the University of California–San Diego.

"I'm personally a little worried about the approach of asking universities to report their findings when they do an investigation because I'm very concerned it's going to cause them to be more motivated to not to find anything," she says. She's had too many clients who formally complained to their universities about harassment, but then had an internal probe find no wrongdoing.

As a solution, Larsen would like to see funding agencies enable scientists and students to report directly to them when they experience harassment and abuse. If an agency receives numerous such reports about one researcher, and some kind of internal fact-checking bears those reports out, then the agency can use that information to decide whether to give a grant to the alleged harasser.

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Although they sometimes disagreed in the specifics, there was a clear theme to what advocates want to see in science harassment cases: They all wanted someone big and central—and in control of the money—to have a list of scientists who are accused of harassment, or are found to have violated university policies. And they wanted grant money to be part of the consequences people face when found guilty by their institutions of harassment.

One thing activists fear is having harassers avoid consequences by moving jobs, to new institutions where no one knows about their past. In a study published in the Utah Law Review, researchers found 10 instances of what they called "pass-the-harasser," comprising 4.5 percent of the university faculty harassment cases they analyzed. The true rate is likely higher, the study authors write, "[g]iven the high percentages of accused serial harassers and the significant percentage of accused faculty who resign prior to discipline."

In general, the scientists and lawyers interviewed by Pacific Standard didn't have too many complaints about how Ayala's NIH grant played out after he resigned. Most wanted to have seen UC–Irvine notify the NIH of Ayala's leave of absence, which started in November of 2017. A more conservative proposal would be to alert the NIH soon after the university came to findings of wrongdoing against Ayala, which was in May of 2018. But it's not known whether the university informed the NIH at all; only that by July 2nd, 2018, the NIH knew Ayala was no longer a university employee.

*Update—October 5th, 2018: A previous version of this article reported that the NIH had no policy in place requiring universities to report if a scientist leading a grant is placed on leave, and had no plans to change its requirements for its grantees.

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