Scientists heartened by potential appointees
WASHINGTON — After President-elect Barack Obama fills out his cabinet appointments, he will turn to appointing new leadership for the government agencies with the power to regulate industry—a process that will likely bring an end to what has become known as the Bush administration’s “war on science.”
President Bush’s appointees at environmental and health regulatory agencies have let ideology trump scientific and statistical analysis, critics allege. His picks for top posts at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of the Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration have faced a steady stream of complaints from Democrats, public interest groups and scientists themselves.
Obama has signaled throughout the campaign season and during the transition that he plans to break from the Bush mold. In appointing Steven Chu, head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as energy secretary on Monday, Obama said, “His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action.”
In response to a series of question from a grassroots organization called ScienceDebate2008, Obama, the presidential candidate, vowed to “restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees.”
The group, whose members included Chu, is dedicated to raising awareness of science and technology policy issues.
Obama’s emphasis is understandable Examples of unscientific decision-making over the last eight years have not been hard to find.
EPA has lost several lawsuits because it has poorly controlled mercury, smog and other pollutants and refused to regulate emissions that contribute to global warming. Stephen Johnson, Bush’s third EPA chief, has ignored EPA scientists and, last year, he blocked California from enacting its own greenhouse gas motor vehicle emission standards. The state has sued EPA in federal court.
In 2007, the White House came under fire for editing a CDC report on the effect global warming would have on public health.
James Holsinger, Bush’s second-term nominee to become surgeon general, was blocked by the Senate because of a position paper he wrote for the United Methodist Church thathe wrote arguing that male homosexuality was unnatural and unhealthy. “When the complementarity of the sexes is breached,” he wrote in 1990 “injuries and diseases may occur.”
Illustration by Matt Mahurin
Democrats have criticized the FDA under Bush for everything from salmonella outbreaks to lack of oversight of drug companies. Earlier this year, when FDA officials told Congress that Bush’s budget was sufficient even though Democrats were offering more money, House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) let FDA chief Andrew von Eschenbach have it.
“[Y]ou’re not the first fella I’ve had to skin for not doing his job and coming up here and defending an indefensible situation,” Dingell said. “I want to maintain my respect for you but I can’t maintain my respect for you if you keep toe dancing around the hard facts that curse you with the inability to do your job because you don’t have resources.”
So far among the science-oriented agencies, only a new EPA administrator has been chosen. On Monday, Obama announced he’d like the job to go to Lisa Jackson, chief of staff for New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine and the state’s former top environmental official.
Jackson and the rest of Obama’s environmental team won wide praise among scientists and liberal bloggers for the pick.
“Today’s appointments suggest a new dawn for America’s role as a leader in research and innovation to address the world’s great challenges,” wrote Shawn Lawrence Otto, the CEO of ScienceDebate2008, a grassroots group that tried to inject discussion of science policy in the election. “We were founded by scientist-statesmen, their voice is what has always made us great, and frankly, it’s good to see it back in the policy process,” he wrote.
Some advocates want Obama to elevate his science advisor, the appointee who will head the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to cabinet rank much like the national security advisor. In past administrations, this position has gone to physicists, and whether Obama departs from that mold remains to be seen.
“Having that person at place at the table will signal to the public that science is back in the process rather than sidelined and that’s been a theme that Obama has sounded during the campaign,” Mary Woolley, the president of Research America, a research advocacy group, said.
Centers for Disease Control
The Washington Post reported last month that Obama is unlikely to keep Julie Gerberding, the embattled CDC chief. Several names have been floated to take Gerberding’s place.
They include Jeffrey Koplan, a member of Obama’s transition team charged with reviewing the Department of Health and Human Services; Bill Corr, the executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids; and Nicole Lurie, a public health expert at the RAND Corporation. Corr has worked on Capitol Hill and served as chief of staff at HHS. Lurie served as the deputy assistant secretary for health at HHS from 1998 to 2001.
For science advocates, the most important criterion for the next CDC chief is that he or she restore intellectual rigor to the policy-making process and insert the agency into the administration’s internal debates about how to combat climate change.
“We need CDC to become engaged in the federal climate science program,” said Rick Piltz, the founder of Climate Science Watch. “They’ve never been a player as it pertains to how public health is affected by climate change. [CDC needs] a focused program of research and assessment.”
Food and Drug Administration
Last week, a leading House Democrat encouraged Obama to clean house at the FDA.
“The current FDA senior management blocked clinical trials, drove dedicated medical professionals out of the agency, and lined their pockets with outrageous bonuses,” Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) wrote to Obama last week. “A new Commissioner or Interim Commissioner must bring the Agency back to the forefront of science, integrity, and transparency.”
During the campaign, Obama vowed to allow the FDA to regulate tobacco. Giving the FDA new authority to regulate tobacco would vastly expand its power. While Stupak severely criticized Bush’s FDA chief, von Eschenbach, a spokesman from Stupak’s office said he had not pressed Obama to nominate anyone in particular.
The candidate’s FDA administrators, according to news reports, include Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steve Nissen and Joshua Sharfstein, the chief of Baltimore’s publichealth department.
Another possibility is Harold Varmus, the former National Institute of Health director and a Nobel Prize winner. He is now the CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and a member of the Obama transition team.
The biggest challenge for the next FDA administrator “is regaining the public’s trust,” said Rick Weiss, a former Washington Post science reporter who is now with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Weiss says that FDA has lost the public’s confidence during the past several years after drug related scandals and food safety crises.
One avenue Obama could take, Wisee suggested, is to depart from the tradition that the FDA chief is a medical doctor.
“Obama could break that mold with someone who doesn’t have a conventional background that might be more relevant to the modern FDA,” Weiss said, adding that a candidate might have expertise in the law or food safety issues.
The surgeon general spot is rife with potential for missteps. President Ronald Reagan’s appointee, C. Everett Koop, was controversial among liberals at first for his views on homosexuality but eventually won their grudging respect and alienated some on the right for waging war on HIV-AIDS and smoking. President Bill Clinton appointed Joycelyn Elders, whose off-hand comment about masturbation drew heaps of criticism from Capitol Hill and forced her resignation.
Under the Bush administration, the surgeon general has been relegated to a bit player in public health debates, especially in Bush’s second term. Not only does the office not have a permanent occupant, but former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a heart surgeon by training, became the White House’s chief health advisor.
The office can elevate its stature in an Obama administration depending on who is appointed to the job, but Woolley would like to see more resources directed to the nation’s top doctor.
“The new surgeon general [should be] equipped with a real office rather than just an assistant or two and an office [to have a] bigger impact,” she said.
In an interview with Fox Sports, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s incoming chief of staff, joked about naming Dr. J, the basketball star Julius Erving, as surgeon general. Obama is more likely to consider the Emanuel household for a highly qualified candidate for one of the government’s public health posts.
Emmanuel’s brother, Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the nation’s leading bio-ethicists, is an oft-mentioned candidate for a presidential appointment.
Another possibility is that a “Friend of Barack”, or FOB, could end up as the nation’s next surgeon general. Eric Whitaker was a graduate student at Harvard’s public health school when Obama attended the law school. Whitaker became the chief of the Illinois Department of Public Health and worked at the University of Chicago’s Hospital with Michelle Obama.
So far, Whitaker has let it be known that he wants to serve in the administration, but not just yet.
Another Chicagoan under consideration, according to the Chicago Tribune is, Dr. Gail Rosseau, Rosseau is chief of surgery at the Neurologic and Orthopedic Institute of Chicago and an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Rush University Medical Center.
Obama has plenty of allies in the scientific community, but political appointments requiring a background in science and medicine are among the toughest to fill.
“Among the biggest burdens with appointments in these fields are federal salaries. Many scientists are not personally wealthy and have to take pay cuts to work in government,” Cal Mackenzie, a political scientist at Colby College who is an expert in the appointment process, said.
Scientists are also less likely to go to Washington because of “the risk or fear of falling behind as basic science moves steadily forward,” he said.
But because these agencies have been under political and budgetary constraints for the past eight years, Mackenzie also said that the chance to turn the agencies around and be a part of the Obama administration could attract enough competent candidates to provide Obama with a choice.