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NIH’s Response to Increasing Sexual Harassment on College Campuses: What is Required for Grant Recipients?

Last year, Congress passed legislation to give the National Institutes of Health (NIH) greater ability to address harassment in activities funded by the NIH. So how has the agency responded? What are the new requirements for grant applications? How are earlier policy changes affecting institutions? 

And why are these requirements so important to colleges and universities? The importance can provide an opportunity for those who are trying to draw attention to harassment and put an end to practices that have been allowed to continue for too long.

The Effect NIH Policies Can Have on Colleges and Universities

The connection between NIH and American institutions of higher learning is not immediately obvious to many people outside the academic field. As with so many connections, the basis is funding. 

NIH provides significant funding for biomedical research conducted by colleges and universities, particularly among medical schools. NIH awards are published online and vary significantly from one institution to another. For fiscal year 2023, for instance, Bernard M. Baruch College in New York received a little over $82,000 in funding while UCLA was awarded close to $330 million and Johns Hopkins University received upwards of $365 million. Even smaller awards can have quite an impact on the bottom line of an academic institution.

So when NIH changes policies for grant awards, schools need to pay attention.

Required Notification

Section 239 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 included a provision that requires NIH to require their grant recipients to provide notification if key personnel are disciplined or removed from their positions due to concerns regarding harassment, bullying, retaliation, or hostile working conditions. NIH views this as a “major step” toward changing “the culture of harassment in biomedical science.”

The agency initiated efforts in 2018 to address harassment concerns, and they report receiving more than 400 notifications between 2018 and 2022, with 112 confirmed harassment findings that resulted in 92 individuals being removed from NIH grants. The new requirements are expected to increase those numbers.

Expectations and Requirements for NIH Recipients

NIH requires all organizations receiving funding—including colleges and universities—to have established policies, procedures, and systems to manage activities in accordance with NIH standards, and that includes having procedures in place to foster an environment free from sexual harassment. NIH recommends that institutions receiving funding establish programs similar to their own policies and procedures for Preventing and Addressing Harassment and Inappropriate Conduct as well as the policy statement on Personal Relationships in the Workplace.  

Compliance with Civil Rights Protections

Institutions that receive NIH funding need to take certain required steps to demonstrate compliance with federal civil rights protections. Specifically, according to NIH Grants Policy Statement 4.1, as a condition of receiving a grant, an institution must certify in the application that it has filed a civil rights assurance with the statutes described in the “Civil Rights Protections” provision with the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Notification of Disciplinary Action

Acting on the legislative requirements, NIH established rules requiring institutions that receive NIH funding to submit specific notification when an individual identified as a principal investigator, program director, or key or senior personnel listed in an NIH notice of award is either removed from their position or disciplined by the institution because of “concerns” involving bullying, harassment, hostile working conditions, or retaliation. 

The notification must be provided within 30 days of the disciplinary action or removal and must be submitted through a dedicated web form. Along with other required information, the institution must explain the impact that the disciplinary action or removal will have on the NIH-funded award.

Obligations to Conference Attendees

If an institution receives an NIH conference grant, that institution is expected to ensure appropriate policies are in place to prevent discriminatory harassment and provide a safe and respectful environment for attendees.

How the NIH Handles Allegations of Harassment on an NIH-Funded Project

NIH provides four methods that can be used to submit an allegation of sexual harassment involving a project funded by NIH. In addition to a dedicated form on the NIH website, those wishing to file a complaint may submit an email, contact the agency by phone at 301-480-6701, or communicate directly with NIH staff, such as the IC Research Integrity Officers. Anyone may submit an allegation, whether they were the target of harassment or just aware of the harassment.

Once allegations are submitted, the Office of Extramural Research reviews the submission and forwards the complaint to a different office if appropriate. Staff will assess the allegations to determine if:

  • NIH-funded grants are involved
  • Sufficient information exists to proceed (or whether additional information is required)
  • The person of concern is involved in peer review service and whether they should be removed

After review, the Deputy Director of Extramural Research will write to the institution to describe the allegations, express the agency’s concerns about harassment and remind the institution of the requirements and expectations regarding harassment. The letter will also request the institution to respond within 30 days with an explanation of whether the alleged events were linked to NIH funding, details of restrictions placed on the individual connected with harassment, steps to ensure that research is conducted in an appropriate environment, specific oversight information, and the policies the institution has put in place to address inappropriate conduct.

The agency will review the institution’s response to determine whether the risks to students or research staff have been mitigated. If safety remains a concern, the agency could:

  • Require the institution to name a replacement on the award
  • Put on a hold on pending awards until compliance issues are resolved
  • Refuse to approve the request to transfer grants involving the principal investigator
  • Require the institution to comply with special reporting requirements

In addition, NIH may require specific follow-up measures to ensure concerns are fully addressed.

Individuals Suffering from Sexual Harassment Can Make Life Difficult for Institutions Relying on NIH Funding

For years, institutions often looked the other way when someone made allegations of sexual harassment. Now, with the ability to file complaints directly with NIH and the institutions’ obligation to respond and report on actions taken, individuals who have suffered from or witnessed harassment have viable options to call attention to violators and change the environment within programs.

If you have concerns about sexual harassment in an educational institution and would like more information about your options for redress, contact the knowledgeable team at Duffy Law for a confidential consultation. 

Felice Duffy

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Attorney At Duffy Law

Attorney Felice Duffy served as an Assistant United States Attorney for ten years after beginning her legal career at two prestigious firms (one in CT and one in NY) and then clerking for two federal judges. A life-long Title IX advocate, she brought a legal action under the then-new Title IX statute against UCONN while an undergraduate to compel the creation of its women’s varsity soccer program. She went on to become a first-team Division I All-American, was selected to be on the first U.S. National Women’s Team, and spent 10 years as Head Coach of the Yale women's soccer team. Attorney Duffy has Ph.D. in Education/Sports Psychology and has spoken to, and conducted trainings for, over 50 schools and organizations on a wide range of topics involving athletics, the law, and social justice. You can reach Felice at (203) 946-2000.