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“Nature,” Sexual Harassment, and the Biomedical Sciences Community


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/05/18

Nature reports on the recounting of the experiences sexual harassment of women by graduate advisors, colleagues, and even senior scientists in the field of biomedicine, or in the biomedical sciences.

Many women stated how they simply left science to “escape retaliation and feelings of powerlessness” without anyone to affirm them. The Director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, Francis Collins, organized the May 16, 2019, meeting in the Bethesda, Maryland, NIH campus.

This is part of an ongoing effort of the agency to revise policies for dealing with sexual harassment by scientists who are funded by the agency.

The women came to the podium one by one to recount how they been sexually harassed by their graduate-school advisers, senior scientists or other colleagues. Many said they had left science to escape retaliation and feelings of powerlessness after struggling to find anyone who would believe them.

“The NIH has come under fire in recent years for moving slowly to address harassment by its grant recipients. Another major government research agency, the National Science Foundation,” Nature stated, “last year began to require research institutions to notify it when they put a principal investigator (PI) or co-PI of an agency-supported project on leave during a sexual-harassment investigation, or when people in those roles are disciplined.”

Apparently, the NIH only has a requirement of institutions to report “only if a person working on a project it supports has been taken off a grant or fired.” But it is not required to provide a reason.

One speaker at the event organized by Collins, Alysha Dicke, opined that as long as the NIH funds harassers, then the NIH is part of the problem. Many women quit academia due to the frustration with the culture in it.

As reported, “Others left because their former mentors and departments refused to write letters of recommendation for them after they reported that they had been harassed.”

BethAnn McLaughlin has been pushing for NIH reform. McLaughlin is a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. She requested a moment of silent lasting 47 seconds, because this is the number of years — corresponding to the seconds — that the Title IX legislation passed. It is a statute helping to combat sexual harassment.

“The system that the law sets out to address harassment in education is ineffective, she said, because it allows universities to police themselves. ‘The NIH is failing us,’ McLaughlin added,’” the article stated.

The Vice-Chair of Diversity and Justice at the University of Colorado Denver and Member of the NIH working group on sexual harassment, Sonia Flores, stated that people want action.

Flores noted the power of the funding agency in the fight for a reduction and elimination of sexual harassment. The NIH, in February, reported that there was disciplinary against those found to have committed sexual harassment.

As reported, “The agency replaced 14 PIs on its grants and banned 14 from participating in peer-review panels. It also said that 21 PIs had been disciplined or fired by their employers.”

Lawrence Tabak, the NIH Principal Deputy, expressed gratitude for the public and professionals holding the NIH responsible.

February also marked the first meeting of the NIH’s harassment working group. It will present its interim recommendations to Collins in June.

The article concluded:

It remains to be seen whether the working group’s findings will translate into policy, given the political challenges the NIH may face as it implements reforms, says Juan Pablo Ruiz, a stem-cell biologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But “regardless of whether they decide to make some action or not, they’ve recognized that this is a movement that’s going to continue going forward and they want to be on the right side of history”, he says.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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