Science appointments in the USA

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Slow appointments and vacant positions in federal agencies challenge the stability of research in the USA. Susan Jaffe, The Lancet's Washington correspondent, reports.

As President Donald Trump rolls out his domestic agenda, his proposed budget cuts and lingering vacancies in key federal agencies have rattled some people in the biomedical research and science community.

“This has been the most anxious time in science that I have seen in this country”, said Rush Holt, chief operating officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which represents 250 scientific societies and academies serving 10 million members. Holt cited a litany of reasons: “fake news” that distorts science, “policy making based on wishful thinking rather than evidence, funding proposals that are nonsensical, and unfilled positions in government agencies”.

Earlier this month, the president alleviated some doubts about the tenure of the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world. Francis Collins, who was first appointed in 2009 by former President Barrack Obama, is to continue heading the NIH. Like other Trump appointees, Collins serves at the discretion of the president.

“We are thrilled,” said Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, an advocacy organisation that represents research institutes, medical centres, scientific societies, patients' groups, and health-care companies.

“Unsteady ground”

A delay in filling key positions is not unusual for a new administration. However, for Jennifer Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, “the number of open positions combined with the fundamental shift in focus and emphasis mostly evidenced by the budget request create unsteady ground”.

Although Trump is willing to keep Collins on at the NIH, he wants to reduce NIH spending for the 2018 fiscal year beginning Oct 1 by nearly US$6 billion or about 20%, including a $1 billion cut for the cancer institute. Trump's request comes even after Congress soundly rejected the administration's proposed cuts for this year's NIH budget and instead gave the agency a $2 billion raise.

Congressional leaders “have been quite outspoken in support of NIH”, said Woolley, and have shown they are “willing to ignore the president's budget when it comes to NIH”.

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