Okay, I’m back to blogging, slowly but surely. Special thanks to Andrea, Anthony Cox, daedalus2u, and many others for your get well comments and e-mails. Thanks also to Science Mom and TheProbe for sending me e-mails with great ideas for future posts.
Recently the DISCOVER Magazine blog, Reality Base, asked former U.S. Surgeon General (1982-9), C. Everett Koop, the question, “What are the most important things the next U.S. president needs to do for science?”
His answer #1 was: “Appoint the next surgeon general with an eye to scientific and medical prowess, rather than make it a political appointment.”
I couldn’t agree more. So if McCain is elected president, even if I don’t expect him to choose somebody like Jack Geiger as Surgeon General (although I think Jack would be a great Surgeon General), the message from Koop is that McCain shouldn’t choose some physician just because he/she has been long-time Republican Party kiss-ass.
The same sort of advice goes for Obama, although it’s easier to find scientifically accomplished public health activists among liberals than among conservatives. But you never know — Dr. Koop was appointed by Ronald Reagan.
Also: As Dr. Koop probably knows, in order for the Surgeon General to use his or her scientific or medical prowess, the Office of the Surgeon General needs to become an independent entity in which the Surgeon General reports directly to the President. This is the way things were when Koop was Surgeon General. Now, the Surgeon General reports to the Assistant Secretary for Health. Indeed, the last Surgeon General, Dr. Richard Carmona (2002-6), had to have all his speeches and other public statements cleared by the office of the Assistant Secreatary of Health. So much for independence. (See the section entitled “Political interference” in the Wikipedia article on Dr. Carmona – it’s an accurate summary.)
While I’m on the subject of political appointments (or rather avoiding political appointments), I should add that Dr. Koop’s advice to the president should also be extended to the Director of NIH. In other words: Appoint the NIH Director with an eye to scientific prowess; avoid the temptation to use any political or ideological critera in choosing the NIH Director.
Lets’s look at the major accomplishments of the Directors of NIH before their appointments, starting in 1975. The quotes are from the official web site of the history of NIH.
Donald S. Fredrickson (1975-81): “…internationally known authority on lipid metabolism and its disorders…”
James B. Wyngaarden (1982-89): “…internationally recognized authority on the regulation of purine biosynthesis and the genetics of gout…”
Bernadine Healy (1991-93): “…chairman of the Research Institute of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, where she directed the research programs of nine departments…” [No scientific accomplishments mentioned]
Harold E. Varmus (1993-99): “Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1989 for his work in cancer research…leader in the study of cancer-causing genes called ‘oncogenes,’ and an internationally recognized authority on retroviruses…”
Elias A. Zerhouni (2002- ): “…credited with developing imaging methods used for diagnosing cancer and cardiovascular disease. As one of the world’s premier experts in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), he has extended the role of MRI from taking snapshots of gross anatomy to visualizing how the body works at the molecular level. He pioneered magnetic tagging, a non-invasive method of using MRI to track the motions of a heart in three dimensions. He is also renowned for refining an imaging technique called computed tomographic (CT) densitometry that helps discriminate between non-cancerous and cancerous nodules in the lung.”
President George H. W. Bush set an unfortunate precedent in 1991 when he appointed Bernadine Healy as Director of the NIH. The appointment was purely political, based on Healy’s lifetime support of the Republican Party. Although many feminists were overjoyed at the time, Dr. Healy was hardly a scientist. She was a career administrator.
Let’s not forget that the National Institutes of Health have often been called the greatest scientific institution in the history of the world. Bernadine Healy was about as qualified for the job of NIH Director as Sarah Palin is to be President of the United States.
(Recent quote from J.B. Handley: “If Dr. Healy is the Ted Williams of her field, Paul Offit is struggling to make his neighborhood T-Ball team–that’s how big she is.” Sorry, Mr. Handley, but the perception in the scientific community would essentially reverse this analogy. Paul Offit is undoubtedly the Ted Williams of his field. In baseball terms Bernadine Healy is more like the mediocre player who becomes a pretty good manager, and then goes into announcing. Baseball fan commenters are welcome to come up with someone; I can’t think of anyone offhand.)
So here’s hoping that the next president will appoint both a Surgeon General and an NIH Director with real ”scientific prowess.” Personally, I’d like to see qualified women in both jobs.