E&C Republican Leaders Question NIH’s 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) sent a letter Monday to National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins regarding the agency’s handling of sexual harassment complaints about an oncologist who served in leadership roles on NIH committees.

Excerpts from the letter:

“The Cancer Letter recently reported that Dr. Axel Grothey, a prominent gastrointestinal oncologist, was reprimanded in 2020 by medical licensure boards in three states for engaging in unethical sexual relationships with two female colleagues, both in mentorship relationships with Dr. Grothey, when he was employed at Mayo Clinic Rochester (“Mayo”), his long-time employer. Despite these three reprimands that were publicly available in 2020, Dr. Grothey held his prominent appointment as co-chair of the NIH National Cancer Institute (NCI) National Clinical Trials Network’s Gastrointestinal Steering Committee, an influential group that reviews ideas for clinical trials and helps determine the priorities in federally funded clinical research in GI oncology.” 

“In his NIH role, Dr. Grothey’s decisions could have adversely impacted the careers of his accusers. Post-graduate medical education follows an apprenticeship model and experienced medical professionals in a supervisory role have tremendous sway over the future of mentees. Rates of sexual harassment, assault, and retaliation in the medical education field far outpace other professional disciplines, according to a 2019 study by the National Academy of Sciences. 

“It was not until after?The Cancer Letter?informed NCI officials about Dr. Grothey’s disciplinary record and requested comment that NCI Director Ned Sharpless removed him from the steering committee effective May 27, 2021.” 

The letter then details that in 2019 two female scientists from Mayo contacted the NCI and the NIH Office of Extramural Research with allegations about Dr. Grothey’s sexual and ethical misconduct out of concern about Dr. Grothey’s impact on them from Dr. Grothey’s position to wield power on a federal level. In both cases, the scientists received inadequate responses from NCI and the NIH. 

Citing the Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy for NIH Awardee Organizations website, Leader Rodgers and Subcommittee Leader Griffith ask Dr. Francis Collins to answer the following questions by August 30, 2021: 

  1. What was the NCI’s and the NIH’s policy and process in 2019 for handling sexual harassment complaints about individuals outside of NCI/NIH serving in leadership roles on NCI/NIH committees? Was the approach uniform across all of NIH or was it institute/center-specific? 
  2. What is the NCI’s and the NIH’s policy and process currently for handling sexual harassment complaints about individuals outside of NCI/NIH serving in leadership roles on NCI/NIH committees? Is the approach uniform across all of NIH or is it institute/center-specific? 
  3. If there is no policy and process in this area, what actions, if any, will be taken to establish policy and processes for such complaints? 
  4. What obligations do professionals have immediately to report to NIH any complaints and reprimands involving sexual harassment or unethical conduct for those who hold NIH leadership roles such as steering committees? 
  5. Do you agree with the removal action that Dr. Sharpless took on May 27, 2021?

CLICK HERE to read the letter to Dr. Collins.