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.

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Sarina Neote

Sarina Neote is ASBMB's director of public affairs.

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