Jobs in top healthcare and science positions could threaten Biden’s agenda

WASHINGTON — President Biden, who took office and pledged to “re-energize our national science and technology strategy,” now faces a leadership vacuum that could threaten his ambitious research agenda, which goes well beyond fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

Neither the Food and Drug Administration nor the National Institutes of Health have permanent leaders. Mr Biden’s health secretary, Xavier Becerra, has been criticized for his low profile. And on Monday, his scientific advisor, Dr. Eric S. Lander, the first adviser of that kind to serve in the cabinet, resigned after admitting he bullied his colleagues.

The departure of Dr. Lander leaves a particularly large hole. He led the cancer moonshot, an initiative to halve the cancer death rate over the next 25 years, and supported a new pandemic preparedness plan that the White House has compared to the Apollo mission.

dr. Lander was also a driving force behind Mr. Biden’s proposal to create a new agency to drive innovation in medical research. Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the proposed agency, known as ARPA-H, was the subject of a House committee hearing on Tuesday. dr. Lander, who was believed to be the key witness, was not there.

“This was a government that is really committed to the primacy of science for the pandemic and also to ambitions well beyond the pandemic,” said Dr. Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “And what matters is a mission to harm oneself.”

Administrative officials say work will continue. Kevin Munoz, a White House spokesman, said the administration has “exceptional leadership” at the Department of Health and Human Services and “strong acting leadership” at the FDA and health agencies.

The FDA is headed by an Acting Commissioner, Dr. Janet Woodcock, and Dr. Lawrence Tabak is the acting director of the NIH after its longtime leader, Dr. Francis S. Collins, resigned late last year. Both Dr. Woodcock as Dr. Tobacco are longtime officials at their respective agencies, considered steady hands.

But Sudip Parikh, the director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said he was deeply concerned that without permanent leaders it would be difficult for federal agencies to execute Mr. Biden’s agenda with imagination and vision.

In addition to considering establishing and funding ARPA-H, the House and Senate are working to reconcile their versions of legislation permitting increased funding for the National Science Foundation, which supports research in a range of scientific and technological areas such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

“I’m excited about what we’ve accomplished so far, but I’m really concerned about this next set of steps,” said Dr. parikh. “We’re on the cusp of some of the biggest changes to the way we do science in this country in 74 years, so we want Senate-confirmed science leaders who can bring a vision forward.”

Ellen Sigal, the president and founder of Friends of Cancer Research, a Washington advocacy group, shares that concern.

“They need to have an FDA commissioner confirm immediately, they need to have an announcement about who will lead the NIH and then they need to replace Dr. Lander and find out who has the status to bring these different initiatives together,” she said.


February 11, 2022, 10:52 a.m. ET

After the administration of former President Donald J. Trump routinely spread misinformation about the coronavirus, scientists were excited and relieved when Mr. Biden was elected.

“Our long national nightmare is over,” R. Alta Charo, a professor emeritus of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, told Scientific American at the time.

In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Charo said that Mr. Biden had kept his promise of respect for scientific integrity, and that his response to the pandemic, while not perfect, had been a major improvement. Still, she said, “I hate that we have such a vacuum of leadership.”

Others were less charitable. Holden Thorp, a former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and now editor-in-chief of Science, published an editorial on Tuesday describing the departure of Dr. with sound science and scientific leadership.”

Some critics of the administration say that Mr. Biden has taken on some of the problems with the people he chose to hold various leadership positions.

The coronavirus pandemic: important things to know

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Unvaccinated urban workers. New York City is expected to fire up to 3,000 city workers, including police officers, firefighters and teachers, on Feb. 11 for refusing to be vaccinated against the coronavirus — possibly the largest cut in the number of workers in the nation linked to a vaccine mandate.

He waited almost a year after his presidency to see Dr. Robert Califf, a former FDA deputy commissioner, as his top job candidate, all the while knowing that Dr. Califf’s ties to the drug industry would spark opposition from some Democrats. dr. Califf now faces a steep climb to confirmation, with key Democrats withholding support over opioid policy and its ties to the industry, while anti-abortion groups pressure Republicans to vote against him.

Mr. Biden chose Dr. Lander, a leading geneticist, to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy, despite serious questions about his behavior in the workplace. dr. Lander had previously been accused of being insensitive to women and people of color. During his Senate hearing, he acknowledged downplaying the contributions of two women scientists, who won a Nobel Prize last year for their work on gene editing technology.

Mr. Becerra — a former California Attorney General whose passion is improving access to health care — also seemed an odd choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services during a pandemic, when public health expertise was needed. . During his confirmation hearing, he was grilled by Republicans who complained that he had no medical background.

Mr Becerra’s defenders say Mr Biden has put him in a difficult position; centralizing the pandemic response in the White House and putting doctors like Anthony S. Fauci in front of the television cameras pushed the health secretary into the background. And at the time Mr. Becerra was elected and confirmed, the Biden administration had hoped its vaccination campaign would put a swift end to the pandemic.

But several current and former government officials have said that while Mr. Becerra is much loved, he has not flexed his muscles to resolve conflicts between the agencies under his purview, including the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That has created a structural problem with the pandemic response: Difficult public health decisions are essentially carried out by a handful of senior health officials, none of whom are in charge.

“NIH, CDC and FDA having fun playing together just isn’t a natural act,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, a top health official under former President Barack Obama. “Sibling rivalry is intense and there needs to be a strong presence to coordinate and resolve the gaps.”

In recent days, the administration has been trying to improve Mr Becerra’s profile. Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, took the trouble to note during a briefing Wednesday that his team was coordinating with Mr. Becerra. Also on Wednesday, Mr. Becerra traveled with Jill Biden, the first lady, to Minneapolis to discuss childcare. On Thursday, he went with the president to Culpeper, Virginia, to talk about cutting drug costs.

In a November interview, Mr. Becerra said he didn’t need to be in the spotlight to succeed at his job. He was referring to his time as a member of Congress, when he was in Democratic leadership, including leading the House Democratic Caucus.

“I was never the loudest — tell me if you ever remember I was the guy who was always in front of the camera,” he said. “I do believe there’s something about talking softly, but carrying a big stick.”

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