E&C Republican Leaders Press NIH on Better Handling of Sexual Harassment Complaints

Washington, D.C. — House Energy and Commerce Committee Republican Leader Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Republican Leader Morgan Griffith (R-VA) are pressing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for more details on how its leadership is handling sexual harassment complaints and failing to foster a culture of respect in the scientific community, especially for women.

Rodgers and Griffith raise several concerns that “that NIH’s actions thus far are not adequate to ensure a safe and functional biomedical research workplace given the apparent scale of the challenges.”

These challenges include:

  • NIH's failure to immediately take allegations against Dr. Axel Grothey seriously despite him being disciplined by three states for inappropriate sexual conduct. Only after the Cancer Letter reported on this situation did the NIH finally act to remove Dr. Grothey from the steering committee, two years after complainants contacted the NIH.
  • NIH’s own statistics that show a significant problem with more than 300 cases related to harassment since 2018.
  • Recent independent surveys that have found top institutions and major NIH grant recipients with a high number of reported instances of sexual misconduct.

In their latest letter on this matter to NIH, Rodgers and Griffith specifically ask Acting Director Lawrence Tabak to address specific questions highlighted by the Association of American Universities (AAU) and its campus survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. This survey uncovered that Yale University, among the highest largest recipients of Federal taxpayer funding in the form of NIH research grants, has one of the highest rates of female sexual assaults on university campuses.

Key excerpt of their letter:

“Such findings and high-profile cases raise concerns about possible non-compliance with Federal laws applicable to NIH funding, including Title IX. As you know, Yale has been among the largest recipients of Federal taxpayer funding in the form of research grants. During the past ten years, for example, Yale has received approximately 9,584 awards to faculty and professors totaling around $4.3 billion from NIH alone. Each of these awards was conditioned on Yale’s full compliance with applicable Federal laws such as Title IX. We could cite several other major grantee institutions for similar issues.

“Based on the massive number of NIH grants and commensurate billions of Federal funds benefitting or inuring to the benefit of Yale and ongoing inquiries, we are concerned that Yale and other institutions may not have complied with their responsibilities under Title IX as a recipient of Federal funds. Compliance with Title IX is more than a mere formality - it is a prerequisite for receipt of Federal funds. Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asserts that complying with research grant requirements is a significant priority.”

In light of these concerns, the members are asking the NIH to provide more information on major grantee institutions and its overall work to handle sexual harassment complaints. They ask:

  • Does the NIH ever talk to the alleged victim of harassment, not just the grantee institution?
  • How many complaints were sent directly to the NIH Director or Acting NIH Director since January 1, 2019? How many of these complaints were referred to the OER? If there were any complaints not referred to OER, why not?
  • If a grantee institution retaliated against a complainant, how would NIH know about it, and what actions would be taken?
  • How much has NIH allocated to resources to respond to targets and survivors in harassment cases involving NIH in some way?
  • NIH reports to have the ability to request Title IX (and possibly other) investigations outside of NIH. In how many cases were these requested? What determines whether these are requested? In reviewing the OER’s policy, if noncompliance with Title IX protocols is found, what steps does NIH take?
  • NIH has created a separate reporting mechanism by which victims or targets may report and responses often indicate a ‘need to know’ basis. Please define criteria or circumstances by which NIH feels a reporter/target/survivor needs to know?
  • As in the Grothey case, the persistence of a perpetrator in a position of power leads survivors and advocates to report. How are letters to institute directors or direct reports to NIH personnel handled? Since 2018, how many victims and/or complainants who have agreed to speak with NIH been followed up with?
  • Following reports to NIH, how many follow up communications from complainants requesting any information pertinent to a prior allegation involving NIH grants or its handling have NIH responded to? What is the median response time (aggregate by year please)? How many have not been responded to and why?
  • How does NIH work with the grantee institution in instances where violence has occurred? Are the perpetrators ever stripped of grants?
  • In what percentage of cases where NIH grants were involved with harassment were the subjects of the complaint involved with decision making? How many gave subjects the opportunity to be involved?

CLICK HERE to read the letter and questions addressed to Acting Director Tabak.

CLICK HERE to read the September 17, 2021 response from then-NIH Principal Deputy Director Tabak to Leader Rodgers.

CLICK HERE to read the August 9, 2021 letter to then-NIH Director Francis Collins.