At this writing, the Bush administration has made only limited progress in filling the most important scientific positions in the federal government: Director of the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration commissioner, and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). This week Bush nominated John Marburger, the director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, to head the OSTP, but many observers have pointed to the delay as an example of the President's indifference to science matters. I happen to take a more charitable view.
I think this is a president who actually respects scientists, the integrity of scientific research, and the relative objectivity flowing from the scientific method. Bush's consideration when he was governor of Texas of scientific findings in cognitive neuroscience on language development sponsored by Reid Lyon, head of the NIH's National Institute of Child and Human Development, was critical in the development of Texas reading programs and is being considered now in the proposed redesign of Head Start. This has been largely missed by most journalists.
My guess is that Bush is seeking to find serious scientists to fill these key slots but may be finding it difficult to do so without alienating his conservative base. There is something to be said for having controversial political decisions on stem cell research and the review of the so-called "abortion pill" being made by the White House in advance of such nominations to avoid politicizing their selections. In this regard, the careful manner in which the administration has sought to balance the need to sustain research in a volatile political environment reflects not only political reality but also a commitment to ensure that the NIH is not destroyed by the stem cell research controversy.
Further, my contacts with people close to the selection process for the cited positions reveal that the President is committed to picking individuals with outstanding scientific credentials who are also committed to encouraging the genomic revolution. There will be no heavy hand to block genetic advances in the public or private sector, my sources tell me. Indeed, whoever is picked will likely, I am told, encourage even greater collaboration between researchers in private companies, federal labs, and academic research institutes.
Finding an NIH director, FDA commissioner, or a science policy person who understands the economic reality of genetic research and who appreciates the brave new entrepreneurial world of the rapidly changing science of genomics is hard enough. Finding scientific leaders who are also willing to take the political pounding these positions require, even if the President smoothes the way with some compromises on key issues, is a greater challenge still.
Robert Goldberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis and a senior research fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. You can e-mail him at [email protected] .
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