Report: HHS having difficulty recruiting scientists needed for biomedical research

WASHINGTON — A new government report said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has had trouble recruiting and retaining scientists needed for biomedical and clinical research, which can include work on COVID-19 and other viruses.

There are recruitment challenges because the private sector generally pays more money, according to the Government Accountability Office report.

Congress heard testimony about it in 2018 by former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.

"They're highly paid, highly skilled, and so we're competing against others for the small pool of talent,” Gottlieb said.

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It has affected agencies like the National Institutes of Health, one of the leading agencies in the fight against COVID-19.

"These scientists can come on board, get great experience with the federal government, and then they get lured away from the private sector for double if not more [...] pay,” said Mary Denigan-Macauley, a director on the GAO’s health care team.

Congress has taken steps to help with recruitment.

Lawmakers passed the 21st Century Cures Act in 2016, which gave another 2,000 positions to HHS and increased the amount the department can pay certain scientists.

But according to the GAO report, HHS still hasn’t determined how it will divide those open slots among the different agencies.

"It's critical that they move forward,” Denigan-Macauley said. “We need good folks on board at these agencies to be able to help during the pandemic."

The report said the public health agencies are now working on putting together guidance about the open positions so they can start recruiting for those slots.

“Once that’s done, it could take another six months to actually get these folks on board,” Denigan-Macauley said.