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NIH Updates Sexual Harassment Policy

The US National Institutes of Health has updated its policies regarding sexual harassment in a move aimed at making it easier to hold investigators and institutions to account, officials including NIH Director Francis Collins write in an editorial at Science

Collins along with Carrie Wolinetz, the associate director for science policy at NIH, and Michael Lauer, the deputy director for extramural research, note that sexual harassment "prevents women from achieving their rightful place in science, and robs society and the scientific enterprise of diverse and critical talent."

For instance, in the Stanford Daily this week, a number of women on faculty at the medical school there recount how sexual harassment — ranging from spreading rumors to inappropriate touching — has hindered their careers. According to the Stanford Daily, the response from the university to concerns raised by faculty was inadequate and led a number of women to consider legal action or leaving Stanford. The medical school tells it that it is "dedicated to an environment that is free of sexual harassment and discrimination."

A 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report found efforts to address sexual harassment had been ineffective. Collins noted at the time that NIH would updating its sexual harassment policy in coordination with the National Science Foundation.

According to Collins, Wolinetz, and Lauer, the new NIH guidelines establish the expectation that institutions have to report promptly to NIH when a PI named on an NIH grant has been found to have committed sexual harassment or when changes being made to a grant's institution or investigators are due to safety or work environment concerns, including harassment.

Science's news section notes, though, that NIH's changes aren't as stringent as NSF's policies, and some worry there may still be loopholes. Still, Columbia University's Angela Rasmussen, who was part of an NIH working group on the issue, tells Science this "is a necessary first step in a much longer journey."