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Will Bush Rally for Genomics? Recent Rumors Cause Concern

BALTIMORE, Jan 22 - The interest that President George W. Bush takes in genomics and the strength of his choice for director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy will greatly affect research for years to come, industry and government sources said Monday.

Former President Bill Clinton was fascinated by genomics, often consulting with the director of the OSTP about genomics issues and turning to the OSTP for explanations of breaking scientific news. The outgoing OSTP director, Neal Lane, brokered the joint statement by Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair last March, advocating free access to genomics data. Lane was also called upon to testify at congressional hearings on the role of the public and private sectors in deciphering the human genome.

On the global scene, the OSTP is involved in negotiating America’s contribution to international scientific projects in such forums as the biotechnology working groups of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The future OSTP director may also help referee any disputes that arise between the National Institutes of Health and the Patent and Trademark Office about intellectual property issues affecting genomics.

A recent rumor that the Bush Administration was considering splitting the OSTP into separate science and technology organizations, each with its own presidential advisor, raised concerns in the scientific community. However, the idea was a trial balloon that didn't fly, according to a newsletter released by the American Physical Society last week.

In a recent issue of the newsletter, columnist Robert Park of the University of Maryland wrote that a " close Texas technologist" had urged the split. As a result, Park added, two university presidents had turned down offers of the science advisor job, and Bush was cautioned by former GOP science advisors D. Allan Bromley and Edward David that such a split would be " disastrous."

Last week's issue of the newsletter reported that, in response to the furor, a Bush transition official " over-heatedly" denied the rumor.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration does not yet seem to be fully focused on the OSTP appointment, sources said, causing some journalists to take pot shots regarding the nominee. A source in the genomics community said that academicians with no knowledge of being under consideration have received calls from reporters “out of the blue.”

Among the reported contenders are Charles Vest, president of MIT, Phillip Griffiths, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Thomas Meyer of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Marye Ann Fox, who was formerly vice president for research at the University of Texas in Austin and is now chancellor of North Carolina State University.

Officials in the Bush administration were unavailable for comment.

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