2 neuroscientists top candidates for NIH director

Clinton to send to Congress name of 1 Shalala nominee

January 25, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Two brain scientists have emerged as the leading candidates to be director of the National Institutes of Health at a time when Congress is pouring money into the agency in hopes of unlocking the secrets of many diseases.

Administration officials said yesterday that Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, had identified the two neuroscientists as her candidates to lead the agency, the chief sponsor of biomedical research in the United States.

The contenders are Dr. Gerald D. Fischbach, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and Dr. Steven E. Hyman, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Both have taught at Harvard Medical School.

Fischbach and Hyman were appointed to their current jobs by Dr. Harold E. Varmus, who stepped down last month as director of the National Institutes of Health to become president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

President Clinton will select a nominee and send the name to the Senate for confirmation. Ordinarily, a president in the last year of his term would have little hope of getting the Senate to approve a nominee for so important a job.

But administration officials said they had consulted Congress and found that lawmakers wanted to have a strong manager in charge of the agency as its budget grows by nearly 15 percent a year.

Congress has begun a five-year effort to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health. The budget was increased by $2 billion last year and by another $2 billion this year, to $17.8 billion. Clinton will propose a further increase of $1 billion when he sends Congress his 2001 budget request next month, the White House said.

Fischbach, 61, was chairman of the neurobiology departments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital before he became director of the neurological institute in July 1998.

He has studied synapses, the connections between brain cells or between neurons and muscle.

Hyman, 47, played a large role in the White House Conference on Mental Health last June and in the landmark report on mental health issued last month by the surgeon general of the United States. He is an expert on the molecular biology of psychiatric disorders.

Before taking his current job in April 1996, Hyman studied the way in which such drugs as cocaine and morphine cause long-term changes in brain circuits.

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