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The Director of a Major Science Funding Agency Apologizes for Taking So Long to Address Sexual Harassment in Science

The National Institutes of Health also released the numbers of scientists it has taken action against, in response to claims they harassed others.
The James H. Shannon Building is seen on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland.

The NIH gives grants to more than 300,000 scientists at about 2,500 institutions around the world.

The National Institutes of Health—America's second-biggest science funding agency, behind only the Department of Defense—released numbers last week on how many scientists it has taken action against because of sexual harassment claims. The agency acknowledged that its policies about reporting sexual harassment are unclear. And its director, Francis Collins, apologized for "tak[ing] so long to acknowledge and address the climate and culture that has caused such harm."

The numbers and statement come after many months of activism from scientists and science enthusiasts, who have been calling on the NIH to stop giving taxpayer-funded training and travel grants to scientists "with a history of sexual misconduct."

Over the last year, the NIH says it followed up on sexual harassment complaints at more than two dozen universities and other research centers. That's resulted in 14 scientists being replaced as leaders on NIH-funded research projects and 21 scientists facing disciplinary action from their employers, including firing.

The new information puts hard figures to NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak's claim, last year, that the agency is "very active," behind the scenes, in dealing with sexual harassment claims. "We recognize these numbers seem small" compared to reported rates of sexual harassment in science, Collins, the NIH's director, writes in a statement. At least one in five female science students are harassed by staff or faculty at their universities, a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found. The NIH's disciplinary rates for harassment are also minuscule compared to the agency's overall size: The NIH gives grants to more than 300,000 scientists at about 2,500 institutions around the world, and received $39 billion in funding from Congress this year.

Collins' post underscored some problems I found in 2018, when I followed the fate of an NIH grant led by Francisco Ayala, a biologist who resigned from the University of California–Irvine after a university investigation substantiated several sexual harassment claims against him. The NIH doesn't explicitly say that universities that receive NIH grants have to inform agency officials if they put a grant leader on leave to investigate harassment claims, or find a grant leader guilty of harassment. That's in contrast to the policy at the National Science Foundation, another major science funding agency, which started implementing a "Tell us about harassment" policy early last year. Instead, the NIH's policy says universities must tell the agency if something happens to a grant leader that makes them unable to lead the grant—for example, if they're moved off campus, or placed on leave. But it doesn't explicitly say that the university has to report why.

In Ayala's case, UC–Irvine put him on leave in November of 2017, so that the university could investigate claims against him. Campus officials allowed Ayala back on campus in March of 2018, while forbidding him from interacting with most people in the biology department. But it's unclear whether the NIH knew anything about the investigation until July 2nd, 2018, four days after UC–Irvine's chancellor publicly announced the results of the investigation and that Ayala would resign, effective July 1st. On July 2nd, NIH officials requested UC–Irvine's plan for replacing Ayala on his grant, which supports underrepresented minority undergraduates who want to get advanced degrees in biomedicine and embark on research careers.

A working group that Collins formed to advise him on sexual harassment policy found that "the requirement and appropriate timeline to notify NIH of changes in the status of key personnel named on an NIH grant award is unclear in the current guidance," Collins writes, adding that the NIH plans to clarify its guidance.

The agency is also working on new channels for scientists and students to confidentially report harassment in NIH-funded labs, he writes. When I spoke to her for my story on Ayala, Kristina Larsen, a lawyer specializing in workplace harassment, said she liked the idea of having a direct way to report harassment to funding agencies. She thought that if an agency got many such reports about an individual, and fact-checking bore them out, then officials could use that information to help decide whether they wanted to give a grant to that person in the first place.

Collins' apology has been long anticipated. After meeting him in person and receiving an apology then, BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist and prominent activist for stricter anti-harassment policies, began calling on Collins to say sorry publicly:

When Collins' statement came out, she thanked him:

Speaking to Science magazine, however, McLaughlin said still wanted to see more: that grants led by harassers shouldn't just be moved under new leaders within the same university, but removed from that university and placed in a victims' fund. Last October, she told me that only taking the money away will incentivize school officials to take harassment seriously.