In August, Antonello Bonci, scientific director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), resigned, and the agency’s director told employees in an email that Bonci would be running an addiction institute in Florida. Science has learned that Bonci’s departure followed an investigation spurred by an internal complaint, which alleged that he sexually targeted a trainee and later directed resources to another trainee with whom he was in an intimate relationship.
Sources at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which NIDA is part of, said they were disturbed by NIDA’s lack of transparency. Because there was no public accounting of the reasons for Bonci’s departure, they said, rumors have swirled, depressing morale at the $1.4 billion institute.
NIH, speaking for NIDA and its director, Nora Volkow, declined to comment on Bonci’s resignation. “NIH cannot comment on personnel matters as they are confidential,” a spokesperson emailed. Attempts to reach Bonci by phone, text, and email were unsuccessful.
Bonci had been NIDA’s scientific director since 2010. On 9 November 2018, Volkow sent an email to employees of the institute’s intramural research program. It said: “Dr. Anto Bonci has a very special opportunity to undertake a sabbatical experience to enhance his executive leadership skills” for up to 1 year. The sabbatical removed Bonci from the reporting line of the trainee with whom he was in an intimate relationship, according to NIH sources. (NIH policy “strongly discourages” intimate relationships in which one person has real or perceived professional authority over the other, and requires the prompt disclosure of such ties. The agency may then remove one person from the reporting line as a remedy.)
In March, a senior scientist at NIDA filed a complaint, which alleged that while on sabbatical, Bonci assigned projects and resources to the trainee. It also alleged that he had previously sexually targeted a different trainee, who had been strongly advised against reporting the behavior when she first sought to do so, in the best interest of her career. (NIH sources say that advice came from a senior person in NIDA’s intramural research program.)
After receiving the complaint, NIH hired an external contractor to investigate. On 21 August, after the investigation was complete, Volkow sent an email to NIDA employees stating that Bonci had “resigned his position as NIDA scientific director. … His new position will be as President of the Global Institutes on Addictions” in Miami. That institute is a for-profit corporation that was registered in Florida on 31 July.
On 4 September, Volkow held a town hall meeting with employees at NIDA’s intramural campus in Baltimore, Maryland. At the meeting, Volkow said she could not provide details about Bonci’s departure. (The 1974 Privacy Act bars federal agencies from making such disclosures.) But she said NIDA takes sexual harassment and bullying very seriously; she noted points of contact for employees experiencing misconduct and she met separately with trainees while on campus. According to one person at the meeting, the message was: “We acknowledge [this] was bad. We don’t condone this. … We will support people who have issues. Please bring them up.”
Some credited NIDA for taking the complaint seriously and acting upon it swiftly. One NIH scientist said: “They did it 80% right. He’s gone.”
However, Jennifer Freyd, a psychologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene who studies institutional responses to sexual harassment and reviewed facts and emails in the case, found Volkow’s emails about Bonci unnecessarily rosy. “There was nothing—nothing—that I can see that would have made it necessary to sugarcoat it. That was a betrayal to the truth and to his victims.” She added: “Sexual harassment thrives in secrecy. If you are a would-be perpetrator … [and] you see that you’re going to be protected, then it’s like permission to behave that way.”