President Joe Biden has selected a replacement to lead the National Institutes of Health, but she faces a challenging confirmation hearing ahead as Republicans in the Senate are still weary of the work of the NIH.
Monica Bertagnolli is Biden’s choice to lead the NIH, after working as a cancer surgeon in Boston. Her most recent job was leading the National Cancer Institute, which is a subsidiary of the NIH.
If she’s confirmed by the Senate, she’ll replace Lawrence Tabak, who’s been the head of the NIH on an interim basis since 2021. Francis Collins was the last permanent head of the NIH.
She’s likely to face stiff challenges in the Senate confirmation hearings, as many people believe she’s right in line with the thinking of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. She believes a lot of the same things that Fauci believed, and even once said that she believed Fauci should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bertagnolli also will be tasked with trying to turn around the public perception of the NIH, after that confidence waned during the pandemic. As Fauci himself said recently:
“She’s going to be faced, and the NIH is going to be faced, with a growing anti-science sentiment in this country.”
Two of the major issues that Bertagnolli will likely be asked to address during her Senate confirmation hearing are research into viruses that are potentially dangerous – with GOP members weary of that – and what the NIH can do to combat drug prices that are out of control – which is a major concern of Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders.
When Biden announced the nomination of Bertagnolli, he didn’t address those two major controversies. He focused instead on the work that she has done for the National Cancer Institute.
In a statement, he said:
“Dr. Bertagnolli has advanced my Cancer Moonshot to end cancer as we know it. She has brought together partners and resources from different sectors to launch groundbreaking efforts in cancer prevention and early detection, a national navigation program for childhood cancers, and additional programs to bring clinical trials to more Americans.”
Collins was known as a leader who was very consistent, but Bertagnolli would be expected by many to push the agency into the future. She wasn’t made available by the White House to give an interview for a recent story that Politico published.
Those who have worked with her in the past have said that she’ll chart a completely new path for the NIH. As Greg Simon, the one-time president of the Biden Cancer Initiative non-profit organization, said:
“Francis was sort of the Eisenhower administration. Nothing too drastic, constant, reliable, friendly – but nobody expected it to try really wild things. This will be more like the Kennedy administration.”
If Bertagnolli were to be confirmed, she’ll be tasked with running the health research organization during a time when many people are skeptical of government and specifically of science organizations.