Retaliation against workers in federal agencies takes a variety of forms – dismissal and demotion among the most feared.
For Dougbeh Chris Nyan, it was denial.
He has accused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of denying his professional contributions to a scientific research paper and the development of a medical test. Nyan, an infectious disease physician, is not in this fight alone. He has a key ally in Congress, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Nyan was not an FDA employee, but was an Oakridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) research fellow in FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
Smith is probing Nyan’s case and demanding information from the FDA. In a March 17 letter to FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, the chairman instructed the agency to preserve a broad range of documents dating back four years “to better understand the extent to which retaliation has occurred in relation to the Fellow.” The letter indicated that officials within FDA’s Division of Emerging and Transfusion Transmitted Diseases (DETTD) denied Nyan his accomplishments, while crediting them to others.
In his letter, Smith says information obtained by his committee indicates FDA officials “retaliated by removing the Fellow’s name from a scientific research paper to which the Fellow contributed substantially, removing the Fellow’s name as the first inventor on a patent for a medical test developed by the Fellow, and ultimately removing the Fellow from his position at the agency.”
FDA did not answer Federal Insider questions about Nyan. “We are reviewing the issues raised in the letter and are in the process of gathering information in order to respond,” the agency said in a statement. “Once we have gathered the information requested, we intend to respond directly to the Chairman.”
Chairman Smith said the retaliation against Nyan followed the doctor’s testimony to a congressional hearing. “[T]wo scientists in management positions in the DETTD were apparently concerned about potentially damaging effects to the FDA due to the Fellow’s congressional testimony,” Smith wrote.
Nyan, in an interview, said he was never told what about his testimony got him in trouble with FDA officials. He testified before a House Foreign Affairs Africa subcommittee hearing on the Ebola crisis in September 2014. When subcommittee Chairman Christopher H. Smith, (R-N.J.) introduced Nyan at the hearing, Smith made it clear the doctor was not speaking for FDA. Nyan, Smith said according to the meeting transcript, “is testifying here in his capacity as the head of the Diaspora Liberian Emergency Response Task Force on the Ebola Crisis, a conglomeration of Liberian professionals in Diaspora organizations, in the fight against the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and in the region.” Nyan is a U.S. citizen of Liberian birth.
Nyan’s statement to the hearing was mildly critical of international efforts in the fight against Ebola. He said the international response was uncoordinated and “failed to understand the cultural and traditional family ties” in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where Ebola hit hard. He urged Washington to provide assistance to send African health care professionals in the diaspora to the affected countries and pushed the U.S. government to increase its own complement of medical personnel in the region.
Months after Nyan’s fellowship was terminated, one of his supervisors, Dr. Deborah Taylor, sent him a text message that said “I want to apologize for all that happened,” according to Lamar Smith’s letter. A request to interview FDA officials, including Taylor, was denied.
The alleged retaliation began shortly after the 2014 hearing, yet “FDA managers are apparently still plotting against” Nyan, Smith wrote. In January, a published scientific paper funded by FDA ignored Nyan’s involvement, the congressman said.
“Although the Fellow made substantial contributions to the paper by collecting and synthesizing the data and contributed to writing the manuscript, his name is neither listed as an author, nor is he mentioned in the contribution section of the article,” Smith wrote.
“FDA management officials’ decision to remove the Fellow as the named first inventor on the patent appears to amount to further retaliation against the Fellow,” the letter added.
Nyan said his invention is designed to “produce affordable rapid diagnostic kits for pathogen detection” for diseases including Ebola, Zika, HIV, Malaria and West Nile virus.
The father of four, Nyan said he has been unemployed since 2014. He gets by with help from family and friends and “credit cards… maxed out.”
“It’s been very difficult,” he said. “We’ve survived by the grace of god. We pray every day somebody can help us.”
Joe Davidson is a columnist.