Congress: Compel NIH to deal with harassment

The ASBMB sent a letter to appropriators urging them to adopt language requiring the agency to contend with harassment on intramural campus
Sarina Neote
June 22, 2022

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology last month urged two U.S. Senate and House committees to require the National Institutes of Health to take action in light of the results of a 2019 survey on workplace climate and harassment that found, among other things, that one in five respondents was sexually harassed in the past year.
In a letter dated May 25, the society asked Senate and House appropriators to include language in the fiscal year 2023 appropriations bill compelling the NIH to establish a strategic plan and a timeline for implementing recommendations outlined in the 2020 report of survey results.
The ASBMB wrote: “The NIH must be a leader in ending toxic workplace environments that enable harassment. Including this report language in year-end spending legislation signifies a strong commitment to ending all harassment in the American research enterprise.”
The NIH surveyed 16,000 employees, trainees, contractors and volunteers. The September 2020 summary findings report provided specific guidance on what the NIH should do next. For example, the report’s authors suggested “educating leadership on their legal and moral responsibilities in the context of harassment, as well as holding them accountable for protecting individuals experiencing harassment and preventing or addressing retaliation.”
However, more than a year and a half later, NIH has reported no major policy changes or new programs and there has been little progress in terms of next steps.
In May, NIH Acting Director Lawrence Tabak updated staff on how the agency is addressing harassment in NIH-funded activities. He discussed the 2018 launch of the NIH’s anti-harassment program, which included new policies and a new process for handling allegations. Since 2018, he wrote, the NIH Civil Office has reviewed 1,253 allegations of inappropriate conduct. These allegations resulted in 253 informal corrective actions and 101 formal corrective actions.
Importantly, the ASBMB’s letter to appropriators noted that, according to the survey, “(M)ore than half of the (survey) respondents who experienced harassment did not talk about the incident with anyone or report the incident.” On that front, the 2020 summary report suggested the agency take steps to remove barriers for reporting harassment, require enhanced training for supervisors and implement bystander training.

Results of the 2020 NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey

The following are the key findings: 

  1. One in five survey respondents experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months, with women, sexual and gender minorities, younger individuals, trainees and individuals with a disability more likely to experience sexual harassment.
  2.  Overall, respondents experiencing sexual harassment had poorer self-rated physical and mental health and were less satisfied with their jobs compared to respondents who had not experienced sexual harassment.
  3. The majority of respondents were aware of NIH policies and procedures relating to harassment.
  4. Respondents did not frequently talk about or report the sexual harassment experience due to beliefs that the incident was not serious enough or that nothing would come out of the report.
  5. Respondents who had been sexually harassment in the past 12 months reported lower levels of perceived support from the NIH and perceived equity.

The following are the “insights for action” in abbreviated form:

  1. Anti-harassment programs should encourage the support of individuals experiencing any form of harassment, including bullying or incivility.
  2. Support may benefit from a holistic approach that addresses the implications of harassment on a person’s health, career trajectories and opportunities, and work satisfaction.
  3. Current efforts to distribute NIH anti-harassment policies and procedures should be enhanced. Enhanced training should encourage supervisors to implement anti-harassment activities more frequently.
  4. Address barriers to talking about or reporting harassment, in addition to making reporting procedures clear and accessible. Enhanced training for supervisors could be required as part of performance appraisal. The large number of those experiencing harassment who shared their experience with co-workers is a call to action for more witness and bystander training.
  5. Include strategies tailored to ensure that the entire workforce feels supported by both their Institution and the leaders of their work unit. These efforts should include educating leadership on their legal and moral responsibilities in the context of harassment, as well as holding them accountable for protecting individuals experiencing harassment and preventing or addressing retaliation.

Enjoy reading ASBMB Today?

Become a member to receive the print edition monthly and the digital edition weekly.

Learn more
Sarina Neote

Sarina Neote is ASBMB's director of public affairs.

Get the latest from ASBMB Today

Enter your email address, and we’ll send you a weekly email with recent articles, interviews and more.

Latest in Policy

Policy highlights or most popular articles

ASBMB meets with federal science agencies

ASBMB meets with federal science agencies

June 24, 2022

Here’s what the Public Affairs Advisory Committee recommended and learned about new and existing funding programs, resources and more.

ASBMB releases DEAI statement

ASBMB releases DEAI statement

June 16, 2022

"The society will uphold these core values of DEAI across all departments and committees — and support its members in their DEAI efforts at their respective institutions and out in the world," it says.

ASBMB endorses LGBTQ Data Inclusion Act

ASBMB endorses LGBTQ Data Inclusion Act

June 15, 2022

Legislation would require collection of volunteered information about sexual orientation and gender identity in federal surveys.

ASBMB recommends boost to NIH base budget

ASBMB recommends boost to NIH base budget

June 9, 2022

In testimony, the society also made the case for NIGMS funds and sustaining the COBRE and INBRE programs.

LGBT+ scientists face location limitations

LGBT+ scientists face location limitations

June 7, 2022

“I feel like I do not have the freedom to choose where I go,” one scientist said. “To choose where I go, I would have to leave academic research.”

ARPA-H threatens the biomedical innovation pipeline

ARPA-H threatens the biomedical innovation pipeline

May 25, 2022

Congress must find a way to fund the new agency without crippling the NIH and the curiosity-driven research it supports.