WASHINGTON — Peter Thiel, the iconoclastic Silicon Valley mogul who has been advising President-elect Donald Trump on technology policy, has become deeply involved in vetting candidates for other health and science posts in the administration, according to individuals familiar with his role.
Thiel, who has already advanced a candidate to lead the Food and Drug Administration, has been discussing possibilities with other prospective appointees about a variety of health and science jobs. Among others, he recently spoke with Elias Zerhouni, a former director of the National Institutes of Health and president of global research and development for Sanofi, about a top White House science job.
Thiel has also been speaking to organizations pushing possible candidates, among them a working group that includes FasterCures, Research!America, and the Coalition for Life Sciences.
“He’s got pretty broad influence,” said one individual close to the transition team, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity.
The individual said Thiel was very focused in particular on the FDA, NIH, Health and Human Services, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He has tapped Jim O’Neill, a libertarian member of his investment staff, as a possible candidate to be the FDA commissioner.
Neither representatives for Thiel nor members of Trump’s transition team responded to request for comment. Zerhouni also did not respond to a request for comment.
Thiel’s role has caused alarm among people who are concerned about his views on health and science, as well as potential conflicts of interest posed by his extensive investment portfolio in biotechnology businesses.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who is also a close adviser to Trump, played down the notion that Thiel had an outsized role on the transition team, saying that the president-elect “listens to many and obeys none.” But he also acknowledged that Thiel’s role may not sit well with some people.
Thiel is “one of the most brilliant, pro-innovation personalities I’ve ever met,” Gingrich said.
“That can be very uncomfortable for people who believe in bureaucratic science, because his argument for pro-science would be the over-aged system actually discriminates against rising younger talent.”
Thiel’s Founder’s Fund, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm, has poured millions of dollars into companies such as Stemcentrx, which works on cancer treatment; Emerald Therapeutics, focused on DNA research; Collective Health, a health benefits firm; and Zocdoc, a website directory of doctors.
One of Thiel’s biggest ventures is Palantir, the giant tech and software company that, in addition to its federal contracts in defense and other fields, sells software services to health care providers.
“In this administration, conflicts of interest are a feature, not a bug,” said Henry Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford Law School.
What worries Greely more, he said, are Thiel’s views on science, his focus on research to stop aging, and to achieve immortality.
“He seems to me a worrisome outlier in terms of his views about science and research,” Greely said. “He seems quite impatient with the normal ways things get done. I worry that he is interested in shaking up the research establishment and doing it in ways that lead to higher risk activities that have potentially higher rewards, but lower probabilities of being successful. That can be catastrophic.”
Thiel aides have helped convene meetings in San Francisco of experts in science and technology as recently as last week, according to one source who received an invitation.
Aubrey de Grey, a scientist who studies aging and who has received funding from Thiel, suggested that the Silicon Valley investor will help the administration take more of a long-term approach on medical research.
“Peter is a true visionary,” he said, “both in terms of how much better he sees that the future can be and in terms of creative ways to get there.”
De Grey also said he hoped that research projects initiated by startups would receive backing from the new administration.
“Startups and visionaries can take risks that government and government scientists often can’t, but at the same time if its policy is guided by the best long-term thinking, government can lubricate the passage of such new ideas and initiatives.”
One of thorniest science issues likely to confront the Trump administration would be embryonic stem cell research. Thiel has been a strong supporter of that work, though both Gingrich and Representative Tom Price, Trump’s nominee for HHS secretary, have opposed federal funding, raising questions about how Trump may handle the issue.
Maryland Republican Representative Andy Harris, a physician whose name has been floated for NIH chief and who opposes federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, said he was aware of the sharp differences in philosophy.
“Look, if Mr. Thiel wants to privately fund research, then he should do it,” Harris said. “We’re talking about the NIH, we’re talking about taxpayer dollars, and I think you treat taxpayer dollars differently than private dollars.”
Lev Facher contributed reporting.