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WYNGAARDEN LEAVING WHITE HOUSE TO JOIN NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES

Executive Summary

WYNGAARDEN LEAVING WHITE HOUSE TO JOIN NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES as foreign secretary at the end of June. James Wyngaarden, MD, a former NIH director, is currently director of life sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Wyngaarden discussed his upcoming change of jobs at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council annual meeting in Boston on March 28. Wyngaarden has only been in current position for about four months. He joined the OSTP after leaving the NIH directorship in August 1989, and was formally sworn-in in November. Wyngaarden spent seven years as NIH director. Wyngaarden told the biotech group that one of his reasons for joining the OSTP "was to sample what the regard was for the NIH at that level, to see how much it was really considered" within the White House. He said he "made it clear from the beginning" he would remain in the position for only a year. Wyngaarden said his experience at OSTP "confirmed firsthand what I knew intellectually before...at the White House level, the National Science Foundation is regarded as 'the science agency.' NIH is regarded as a health agency." "The part of NIH that the political apparatus sees are the kind of visible things in cancer, chemotherapy, AIDS research -- they don't see much of the fundamental science," Wyngaarden observed. The lack of recognition within the Administration for NIH's activities in basic research is "just an example that NIH is not really present in policy-making at that level," Wyngaarden said. He noted "there are numerous committees that have the director of OSTP, the Director of the National Science Foundation, and various secretaries. I have yet to discover one that includes the director of NIH." In response to audience questions on why the NIH directorship has not been filled, Wyngaarden commented: "I think there are some generic problems with the management structure of the NIH." Part of the problem stems from the fact that the bureaucracy at HHS has somewhat overwhelmed the NIH top position, he noted. "The Secretary of Health position was created, and bureaucracy grew within the Secretary's office. The next round was to create an Assistant Secretary for Health, and that bureaucracy grew. And then, more and more agencies of the Public Health Service were created, some of them quite small. So that diluted the position of the NIH." In the past 25 years, he said, "the NIH has sunk lower and lower and lower in the scheme of things." Wyngaarden observed that "one of the things that really impairs getting a director is that people who are asked to consider this know what's happened, and some of it happened in the time I was there." NIH's status is an issue "being addressed by one of the committees [of the OSTP]," he said, adding, "there's another committee, that is really more of a search committee, and I think they're concluding their studies...but I wouldn't make any precise predictions" as to when a director will be found. * Wyngaarden was also asked how the search for an FDA commissioner is progressing. "My sense is that they have started somewhat of a parallel process. That is, looking at the position, before they look for individuals," Wyngaarden responded. "And maybe in the long run that's wise. It induces an unfortunate delay of course, and a great deal of uncertainty meanwhile. I have to say that under Jim Benson, there have been a series of decisions that rather surprised me for a person who's in an acting position. It looks to me as though he's pushing things forward at a pretty good pace. So I've been pleasantly surprised by that."
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