From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research

Toward a More Civil Community at the NIH

Michael Gottesman

“Our hope is that by providing basic training in ethics, preventing misunderstanding, eliminating harassment, encouraging collaboration and sharing, and arriving at a common understanding of the responsible conduct of science and ethical behavior, we will create a positive, civil environment where high morale springs from the inherent intellectual rewards of research, people work effectively together, and science thrives.”

I wrote these words 22 years ago. Little did I imagine that this vision for the NIH would still not be realized today, that all scientists, including women and other underrepresented groups, would still not be equal and integral in our intramural community, and that mutual respect would not be a universal principle guiding all of our human interactions. Although some progress has been made, the time has come to re-energize our efforts and move to complete the task.

On October 22, 2018, NIH Director Francis Collins announced a comprehensive plan to develop a culture at NIH that respects all individuals and reduces discriminatory harassment, especially sexual harassment. This plan has several components. See the new “Anti-sexual Harassment” website (https://www.nih.gov/anti-sexual-harassment); the NIH Policy Manual, Chapter 1311 on sexual harassment; a policy statement on personal relationships in the workplace; a new centralized process to report, evaluate and address allegations of harassment, including sexual harassment, through the NIH Office of Human Resources Civil Program, which has launched a new web form and hotline number to make reporting an allegation easier.

Disciplinary action, if needed, will be the responsibility of the home institute or center (IC) of the perpetrator found responsible for harassment, but will be monitored centrally.

A main focus of the relationship policy is what to do in matters concerning close personal relationships between people in inherently unequal positions at the NIH in which one may have real or perceived influence over the welfare and/or career of another. Such relationships, should they develop, need to be reported to the designated IC official and managed so as to avoid any appearance of coercion, favoritism, or distress to all individuals involved, including others who share the same workplace.

The Civil Program has a new web form and a toll-free hotline (833-224-3829), each of which can accept both anonymous and identifiable complaints or concerns. However, remaining anonymous may limit the NIH’s ability to conduct a thorough inquiry and take corrective action, if warranted. In early 2019, NIH will launch a carefully constructed survey on workplace climate and harassment to gain insight into workplace climate, and incidents and prevalence of harassment, including sexual and gender harassment, at NIH. The Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion will provide annual training to assure that current staff are aware of expectations and that new staff are informed shortly after their arrival.

NIHers have also been asked to watch a new video (through the HHS Learning Portal), which outlines the NIH policies, tells how to report allegations of harassment, and provides information on other resources for NIH staff.

There are, of course, many questions that you may be asking about these new policies. It is important to note that many NIHers, including anyone with supervisory responsibilities, are required to report to the Civil Program allegations of harassment that are shared with them. If someone has a concern that they want to discuss confidentially and not report, they can consult the NIH Ombudsman Office or the Employee Assistance Program, both of which are not required to report instances of harassment if the target does not wish to do so.

Trainees should continue to seek help from the Office of Intramural Training and Education.

If a mandatory reporter (a supervisor or manager who receives information of an allegation that sexual harassment may have occurred) is unsure about whether an event requires reporting, the Civil Program stands ready to advise. The evidence is strong that once targets of harassment feel comfortable reporting their experiences and this information is acted upon appropriately, the unacceptable behavior becomes less common.

Underlying all instances of discriminatory harassment is a basic disrespect for the value and personhood of the target of the harassment. And the basis of such behavior is a lack of civility. Enhancing civil behavior must be the primary goal of any culture change at the NIH. Many other benefits will follow including fairness in hiring and advancing all staff at the NIH, parity for women at all levels and positions at NIH, and an open and inclusive environment in which all scientists who come from underrepresented groups have an equal chance to participate and lead.

Studies have also shown that civil environments tend to be more productive than uncivil environments.

If we can achieve these goals, NIH’s mission (to “seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability”) will be closer to being realized.


Source for opening quote: A talk entitled “Encouraging Integrity and Civility in Science at the National Institutes of Health,” delivered by Michael Gottesman on November 13, 1996, at the annual meeting on Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research.

For access to all the websites referenced in this essay, go to the Civil Program at https://hr.nih.gov/working-nih/civil/.