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Health Agencies Update
June 23/30, 2020

Government Not Doing All It Could to Recruit and Retain Scientists

JAMA. 2020;323(24):2452. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.10317

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) hasn’t yet used the authority it was given more than 3 years ago to recruit and retain biomedical research scientists, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

Competing against the private sector for biomedical research scientists has been a challenge. In 2017, one HHS agency, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), reported a 14% job vacancy rate at 2 of its centers, higher than the 5% to 7% vacancy rate at other government agencies. In 2018, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, testified that he had been concerned for many years about the long-term stability of biomedical research.

The 21st Century Cures Act, enacted in December 2016, included amendments to improve recruitment and retention of scientists for the Public Health Service’s Senior Biomedical Research Service (the act also renamed the service the Silvio O. Conte Senior Biomedical Research and Biomedical Product Assessment Service).

The amendments quadrupled the size of the service from 500 to 2000 members, authorized the appointment of people with master’s degrees as well as doctoral degrees, and raised the top pay for members.

However, HHS did not issue regulations to guide implementation of the new recruitment and retention powers provided by the 21st Century Cures Act until April 20, 2020, nearly 3½ years after it was enacted, the GAO said.

Officials from HHS told the GAO that their department was preparing guidance based on discussions with the NIH, FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality about how many additional biomedical scientists each will receive. Officials from the FDA said filling those slots could take up to 6 months.