NIH Director, Not Afraid To Buck the President
Uh-oh, should we prepare to launch a job search for National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni?
For a second time, Zerhouni is publicly opposing President Bush's policy restricting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. In a quasi-government magazine arriving in mailboxes this week, Zerhouni suggests embryonic stem cell research should be expanded.
"All avenues of research need to be pursued," Zerhouni says in the newest edition of Medline Plus, a journal published jointly by the NIH and Friends of the National Library of Medicine. He adds: "We must continue the research at all levels, or there will be no progress."
This from a man who serves at the pleasure of President Bush, who has twice vetoed legislation that would do exactly what Zerhouni is espousing: expand research on new embryonic lines.
The last time Zerhouni separated himself from the president's position on stem cell research was last March in testimony before Congress. He emphatically stated that the administration's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research should be lifted. A Congressional Quarterly health care reporter wrote at the time that Zerhouni "perhaps put himself on a path toward unemployment."
But Zerhouni doesn't seem the least bit worried about the prospect of losing his job. The NIH director declined to be interviewed about his opposing views on stem cell research, but we asked his spokesman this question:
Is Dr. Zerhouni worried about getting the ax for speaking out so publicly (a second time) against President Bush's position on stem cell research?
"No," Zerhouni's spokesman, John Burklow, replied. "As the director of the country's primary biomedical research agency, Dr. Zerhouni believes that he serves the president - and the American people - best by providing candid scientific expertise and perspective. He believes his input is appreciated."
Unlike another prominent Bush administration health official who resigned in protest last year, Zerhouni, through his spokesman, says the White House has never tried to tamp down his rhetoric.
We asked Burklow if the White House ever tried to rein in the NIH director's public comments on the topic. "After his March 19th hearing or after subsequent comments in the press, Dr. Zerhouni did not receive any negative feedback or requests that he tone down or change his approach," says Burklow.
That was not the case with former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who resigned in July 2006, claiming the White House repeatedly blocked him from sharing his expertise on everything from embryonic stem cell research to post traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental health problems arising from 9/11.
Maybe Zerhouni is the Teflon Don of the Bush administration. Or maybe the lute-and-piano playing top federal scientist ought to tune up his strings and keys - he may need a day job sooner than he thinks.
Or - wait - maybe he's auditioning for a spot in the Democratic Philharmonic Orchestra. Could it be that Zerhouni is trying to curry favor with Democrats in anticipation of a change of power in the White House?
The short answer, according to his spokesman, is "no."
"This question made me laugh," Burklow said. "Dr. Zerhouni would be the last person to try to play Washington that way...His compass is always 'true north.'...He is, foremost, a scientist, not a politician."
Hmmm, is that the world's tiniest lute we hear playing in the background?
UPDATE: WHITE HOUSE RESPONSE
It doesn't sound as if Zerhouni will find himself standing in the bread line any time soon.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto says President Bush doesn't mind Zerhouni's candor on the topic of stem cell research, even if it is an opposing view.
"I don't think it particularly bothers the president," says Fratto. "He's expressing the view that additional stem cell research would be beneficial. We agree."
But only to an extent. The president, Fratto says, "has to draw the line in a different place than Dr. Zerhouni" - from a "broader view" than that of a scientist. Bush's policy takes into account "moral and religious views."
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