Don’t Take Out Your Frustrations on NIH Staff

Funding News Edition: October 05, 2022
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Dr. Michael Lauer, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research, wrote about uncivil behavior in his latest Open Mike blog “Case Study in Research Integrity: You Can Disagree, Without Being Disagreeable.” In the post, Dr. Lauer provides example cases of extramural researchers who intimidated, bullied, or made verbal threats directed at NIH staff.

In the first scenario, Dr. Lauer describes an NIH-funded investigator who, on a call with a program officer to discuss a summary statement, argues that the review process was unfair and misleading. In the second scenario, an investigator whose application was not discussed by the study section repeatedly emails the scientific review officer to accuse the SRO of lacking integrity and scientific competence. After introducing each situation, Dr. Lauer details how NIH responded to similar incidents in the past.

When faced with inappropriate conduct, NIH encourages staff to email a designated inbox monitored by NIH’s Office of Extramural Research (OER). OER takes these notifications seriously. When reviewing an allegation, NIH will determine if:

  • The person of concern is non-NIH staff, affiliated with an NIH-funded grant award or application, employed by a recipient institution, and/or involved with peer review service.
  • There is sufficient cause to take disciplinary action, conducting follow-up conversations as needed.

NIH will share any relevant information directly with the Vice President for Research of the recipient institution, other appropriate leadership at the institution, or (sometimes) the person of concern. The correspondence will explain whether the alleged behavior affected any NIH-funded activities. NIH will reiterate expectations that recipient institution staff engage in civil interactions with NIH extramural staff. Recipients then have 30 days to respond and must share their codes of conduct and/or policies addressing inappropriate conduct among their employees.

Actions OER may consider include removing the offending person from peer review service, taking allowable grants management actions, contacting the NIH police, or pursuing other appropriate measures. Institutional leadership should also hold their staff accountable as appropriate. NIH acknowledges that emotions can run high when someone receives unfavorable review feedback or must wait for a response from extramural staff—differences of opinion exist throughout the scientific process. But this does not mean NIH staff should have to tolerate improper, harassing, or uncivil behavior.

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