Drug Abuse

Science chief at NIH drug abuse institute resigned after sexual misconduct probe – Science Journal


Until August, Antonello Bonci led the intramural research program of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, housed in this building in Baltimore, Maryland.

National Institutes of Health / National Institute of Drug Abuse

In August, Antonello Bonci, scientific director of the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA), resigned and the agency's director told the staff in an email that Bonci would run a Florida Addiction Institute. Science has learned that Bonci's departure was the result of an investigation triggered by an internal complaint alleging that he had sexually assaulted an intern and later transferred resources to another intern with whom he had close relationships ,

Sources at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in which NIDA is involved, said they had been disturbed by the lack of transparency of NIDA. Because the reasons for Bonci's departure were not public, rumors had spread and affected the moral of the $ 1.4 billion institution.

NIH, speaking for NIDA and its director Nora Volkow, declined to comment on Bonci's resignation. "NIH can not comment on personnel matters because they are confidential," a spokesperson wrote by email. Attempts to reach Bonci by phone, SMS and e-mail were unsuccessful.

Bonci has been the scientific director of NIDA since 2010. On November 9, 2018 Volkow sent an e-mail to employees of the institute's intramural research program. It said, "Dr. Anto Bonci has a very special opportunity to spend a sabbatical to improve his leadership skills. "Up to one year. According to NIH sources, the sabbatical Bonci has dropped out of the intern's reporting, with which he had a close relationship. (The NIH policy "discourages" close relationships in which one person has the actual or perceived professional authority over the other person and demands the immediate disclosure of such attachments.) The agency can then remove a person as a workaround from the reporting line.)

In March, a senior scientist filed a complaint with NIDA claiming that Bonci had assigned projects and resources to the intern during his sabbatical. It was also alleged that he had previously sexually targeted another intern, who had been strongly advised not to report the behavior when she first tried it, in the best interest of her career. (NIH sources say the advice came from an elderly person in NIDA's Intramural Research Program.)

Upon receipt of the complaint, NIH commissioned an external contractor to investigate. On 21 August, after the investigation was completed, Volkov sent an e-mail to the staff of NIDA, stating that Bonci had "resigned from his position as Scientific Director of NIDA. … His new position will be President of the Global Institutes on Addiction in Miami. This institute is a nonprofit corporation registered in Florida on July 31st.

On September 4, Volkow held a city hall meeting with staff on NIDA's intramural campus in Baltimore, Maryland. During the meeting Volkow said she could not give any details about Bonci's departure. (The 1974 Data Protection Act prohibits federal agencies from disclosing such information.) However, she said that NIDA takes sexual harassment and bullying very seriously. She found contact points for employees with misconduct and met on campus separately with trainees. According to one person at the meeting, the message was, "We acknowledge that [this] was bad. We do not tolerate this. … We support people who have problems. Please bring her up. "

Some accused NIDA of having taken the complaint seriously and of responding quickly. An NIH scientist said, "You did 80% right. He is gone. "

Jennifer Freyd, a psychologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, who investigates institutional responses to sexual harassment and reviews facts and emails in the case, found Volkov's e-mails about Bonci needlessly rosy. "There was nothing – nothing – that I can see that would have made it necessary to coat it. That was a betrayal of the truth and its victims. She added, "Sexual harassment lives in secret. If you're a suspected culprit … [and] You see you're being protected, it's like permission to behave like that. "