The U.S. House appropriations subcommittee introduced a bill in late April to fund the National Institutes of Health in fiscal 2020. Included in the legislation is language instructing the science agency to be more proactive in how it addresses sexual harassment within the scientific community.
The bill directs the NIH to require that NIH-funded institutions notify the agency when scientists are placed on administrative leave or removed from a grant because of sexual harassment findings. It also directs the NIH to devote resources to address harassment with “the same level of attention and resources as those devoted to other research misconduct,” and collaborate with the National Academies to develop best practices to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment. The bill also directs the NIH to fund research examining the psychological effects of harassment.
Existing NIH anti-harassment policies already require NIH-funded institutions to report to the agency when an investigator is removed from an NIH grant. Therefore, codifying this policy into law is unlikely to spur new NIH reporting practices.
In addition, the bill directs the NIH to devote resources on sexual harassment on par with those dedicated to research misconduct. However, the NIH currently sends misconduct allegations to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity, which oversees research misconduct investigations of several science agencies within HHS, including the NIH. If the bill becomes law, it’s unclear whether the NIH would continue to forward cases to ORI, if the ORI would expand its definition of research misconduct to include sexual harassment or if the NIH would address sexual harassment independent of ORI.
However, inclusion of this provision into the appropriations bill suggests that members the House committee overseeing NIH funding believe that sexual harassment in science must be addressed. The bill says, in fact, that “the Committee believes NIH must play a more active role in changing the culture that has long perpetuated the problem.”
The bill language aligns with recommendations laid out in the 2018 National Academies report on sexual harassment of women in the sciences. The report also contains recommendations for legislators to address harassment, including the development of legislation protecting harassment claimants from retaliation and prohibiting settlement agreements from including confidentiality clauses. The bill produced by the subcommittee does not address those aspects of the report.
The next step is for the full House to vote on the bill. It remains to be seen whether the companion U.S. Senate appropriations bill also will direct the NIH to address harassment.