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Last Updated

25 Jan 2003

Source: Washington Post, February 4, 2002.


Fill Those Science Jobs

THOUGH THE ANTHRAX crisis has receded from public focus, a long list of urgent tasks still awaits the scientific agencies that have primary responsibility for defending the public health. The White House, after numerous false starts, is reported to be close to making credible appointments to two of the most important posts, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They should go ahead and name these good candidates.

The leading figure for the ever more politically sensitive FDA job is said to be Alastair Wood, a well-regarded professor of pharmacology at Vanderbilt University who has advised the FDA and edited the drug review section of the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Wood has the support of both Sen. Bill Frist, who has advised the White House on other science issues, and of Senate Democrats, who have said they won't accept a candidate from the industries the FDA regulates. There are rumors of behind-the-scenes opposition from drug companies, mostly because Dr. Wood has, to his credit, commented in print about the need to monitor drug safety more closely. On the NIH side, the candidate most frequently mentioned is Anthony Fauci, preeminent AIDS researcher and director of the National Institute for Allergic and Infectious Diseases. Dr. Fauci, who turned down offers of the NIH directorship from President George H. W. Bush, holds his current post under a unique arrangement that allows him to pursue his own research alongside administrative duties. That has not kept him from becoming the de facto voice of authority as the government scrambles to put forward credible spokesmen on the state of anthrax and smallpox research and the government's potential response to those and other scourges. Given the degree to which research into infectious diseases, their prevention and containment will be significant in any battle plan against bioterrorism, that kind of personal authority would be an enormous boon to the science agency.

The biggest immediate task facing both agencies has to do not with misfortune but with its opposite -- figuring out how to deploy the enormous budget increases likely to be awarded both NIH and FDA in the current appropriations cycle. For NIH, the president's requested 16 percent increase delivers on a long-term pledge by successive presidents to double the budget for biomedical research. But a sudden influx of money for a national goal dubbed "bioterrorism" can offer an agency little guidance in setting priorities or shaping an effective mission to meet the new need; on the contrary, such windfalls tend to bring all of an agency's pent-up needs and desires to the surface. To spend the money intelligently will take strong leaders. The White House should put them in place.