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How NIH plans to fight the sexual harassment that could drive women away from science

A milestone report on sexual harassment in science has identified pervasive problems and policy shortcomings at the field's highest levels. In response, NIH apologized for not addressing more quickly “the climate and culture that has caused such harm.” William Brangham talks to NIH's director, Dr. Francis Collins, about the risk of potentially driving women away from careers in scientific fields.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In this era of MeToo revelations, it is increasingly clear the fields of science, engineering and medicine also have more to do when it comes to stopping or reducing sexual harassment and discrimination.

    A milestone report found between 20 percent to 50 percent of female students in those fields experienced harassment, often from faculty and staff. More than 50 percent of faculty said they too experienced harassment.

    That report added new pressure on the National Institutes of Health, one of the biggest funders of scientific research in the U.S.

    Today, the head of the NIH joined William Brangham for a conversation.

    It's part of our weekly science segment, the Leading Edge.

  • William Brangham:

    Last year's report documented an all-too-common story: Existing anti-harassment policies at different scientific institutions simply didn't do enough to stop the problem, and there was too little accountability to help those who come forward.

    Now the director of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, has issued a frank apology for not doing more.

    Dr. Collins wrote — quote — "We are sorry that it has taken so long to acknowledge and address the climate and culture that has caused such harm. Sexual harassment in the sciences, he wrote, is — quote — "morally indefensible, it's unacceptable, and it presents a major obstacle that is keeping women from achieving their rightful place in science."

    And Dr. Francis Collins joins me now.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    Thanks. Great to be with you, William.

  • William Brangham:

    I guess, in the MeToo era, it should be no surprise that these problems would plague the sciences as well.

    But the numbers that Judy cited about the number of women in these fields who claim they have been a victim of some of these crimes is still very striking.

    Why do you think it is so bad in the sciences?

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    I think the sciences, like many other fields where this has been most prominent, are male-dominated, traditionally. That's changing, but not changing quickly enough. Most of the senior leadership in academic institution tends to be male.

    And that kind of culture then encourages this willingness for what can sometimes be more subtle forms of gender harassment, but sometimes also provides the kind of environment where other sexual coercion activities may happen.

    We need to change that. And that's one of the messages from that National Academy report.

  • William Brangham:

    In male-dominated fields — and we have seen this in the military in other ways where women have moved in — is it partly because women are moving into more traditionally male-dominated fields? Or is it simply that the men are — just don't appreciate that they can't act the way they have been acting?

    What's the dynamic there?

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    In science, women are a significant part of our work force. But, still, we have not achieved the point where women have their rightful place in leadership.

    If you go to the top tier of organizations that are doing science in universities, they are disproportionately male. Yet graduate students, post-docs, medical students, we're at pretty close to 50/50 in those categories.

    But why is there such a problem in seeing that kind of advance happen? Clearly, this is an environment that is not always welcoming to women. One of the reasons we're so concerned about sexual harassment is, it does create a climate that discourages talented women from continuing on that pathway towards senior leadership.

    And we're losing that talent. And that's bad for everybody.

  • William Brangham:

    Yes, that certainly seems like one of the — not only is there an emotional and psychic toll to being the victim of this kind of thing.

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    But it also deprives science of half the population, if they view this as a field that is not open to them.

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    Absolutely.

    And there's enormous talent there that we are, therefore, deprived of. And we're discouraging people who have visions of what they might be able to contribute who encounter this unpleasant and somewhat constrictive atmosphere with sexual commentary that is demeaning and degrading.

    And they sort of say to themselves, I don't know if this feels like a place I want to spend my career, and go off and do something else. We lose a lot of women at that point of going from being a trainee to becoming an independent faculty person.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's talk a little bit about the issue of accountability, because that is such an enormous part of this, that, if you are in a culture where this kind of behavior is going on, so many women that I have heard from and that have been reported in this field say, I just didn't feel like I could go to anyone and that the behavior would ever stop.

    How do we address that? Because if you can't report it, and feel like you're going to get some sense of justice, you either endure it or you get out.

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    And that's what NIH and, for myself, as the director, we're trying to change now.

    We have been perceived — and I think there's some justification in that — of sort of standing back and saying, well, it's really the institutions' problem, the university should take care of this.

    But we're the largest funder of biomedical research in the world. We also have responsibilities to be sure that the environment where that research is going on is free of this kind of immoral activity.

    So, we are now taking some ownership of this. And I wanted in that statement that was mentioned, to make it very clear that we have not been as much of the solution as we should be. Sometimes, we have been part of the problem. We want to apologize for that.

    We have been listening to those stories — and they're harrowing stories — of women who have gone through these experiences. We don't think that that's something that we can simply look the other way.

    So, we have decided, within the legal constrictions that we have, to basically play a larger role in identifying instances and acting upon them. And in just the last year, more than two dozen institutions have heard from us about circumstances where sexual harassment was going on, and we have insisted that they come forward and say what they're doing about it.

    As a result, some 21 disciplinary actions have been taken against university faculty. Some have lost their jobs. Others have no longer been allowed to remain as principal investigators on an NIH grant. Others are not allowed to take part in peer review.

    We're really serious about this. We're not just saying it's somebody else's problem.

  • William Brangham:

    Many people are welcoming of the statement that you put out, and they — and they feel that it's heartfelt and earnest and appreciate what you have said.

    But some people have pointed out that you're focusing a little bit too much on accountability once the crime has been committed, once harassment has been identified, and not enough in changing a culture where this goes forward.

    In other words, they're saying, do more on the prevention side, not just the enforcement side. What's your reaction to that?

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    I totally agree with that, because it is not sufficient to simply try to address things once they have already happened.

    And that was a big part of the National Academy recommendation, the need for culture change. We are, in fact, in constant communication now with our institutions about the need for that. And, again, as we talked about earlier, a lot of that is getting women in leadership positions, in the dean's office, in the chairman's office, because that changes the culture in a way that this kind of gender harassment simply becomes less acceptable.

    We're going to promote that at every level as we go through these next steps. And I agree, if all we do is address things where there's already been a bad action, we have not been sufficient.

  • William Brangham:

    You have obviously spent your entire career in the sciences. And I'm curious.

    When this started to bubble to the surface, did this surprise you? Or was this something that you yourself had seen as you came up in your own career?

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    I had seen, but I have to be honest. As a male working in this male-dominated arena, I had observed, but not personally taken responsibility for doing something about it at the level that I now feel I should.

    One of the things that I hope comes out of this very open public discussion now, where we have decided, yes, this is awkward, but we're going to talk about it, is that men will step up and take more responsibility also for the change that's needed.

    This shouldn't just fall on the shoulders of the women to fix the problem that the men have largely been responsible for.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health, good luck with your work, and thank you for being here.

  • Dr. Francis Collins:

    Thanks. It's been great to be with you.

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