New Leaders for NIH and SSA

August 09, 1993

The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda is recognized as the world's best biomedical research institution. But in recent years, this golden reputation has been threatened by ideological tussles such as the Reagan and Bush administrations' ban on fetal tissue research and the refusal to allow studies on RU-486, the French pill that terminates pregnancies. As a result, many scientists have turned down the chance to direct the NIH, and for 18 months during the Bush administration the post was filled by an acting director.

President Clinton's appointment of Dr. Harold E. Varmus to head the NIH signals those troubled times are over. Dr. Varmus, who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize for research medicine and physiology, is widely respected for his devotion to basic research -- the central mission at NIH. His appointment was greeted warmly by scientists.

Dr. J. Michael Bishop, Dr. Varmus' research partner at the University of California San Francisco and a fellow Nobel Laureate, welcomed the news, saying "It's a fabulous appointment." Referring to political strains that have prompted the departure of a number of respected researchers at the NIH, Dr. Bishop also remarked, "There is a bit of re-crafting to be done in the directorship, in the relation between NIH and the federal government. . . . Harold has the intellect and force of will to get these things done."

Another key government agency with headquarters in Maryland also has a new director. Dr. Shirley Sears Chater has been named to head the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, an appointment that reflects Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala's preference for a seasoned administrator rather than someone steeped only in social services.

Dr. Chater is president of the Texas Woman's University in Denton, where she has been a popular administrator and tough fighter for her university at the state capital. Ms. Shalala has made known her concerns about working conditions at the Woodlawn complex; Dr. Chater's record suggests that she is the kind of administrator who can reinvigorate a sprawling bureaucracy.

Ironically, one cloud has emerged among the favorable reviews of Dr. Chater's nomination, her failure to pay Social Security taxes for a part-time baby sitter many years ago. The White House says she is now current in her payments. Making this a serious obstacle to her nomination would be a case of carrying a point to unreasonable extremes.

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