BALTIMORE — The Trump administration’s restrictions on hiring foreign scientists are making it more difficult for the agency to attract top scientific talent, a top Food and Drug Administration official said Thursday.
“[The policy] definitely has created an additional challenge, I think, for us,” said Melanie Keller, the FDA’s acting associate commissioner for scientific and clinical recruitment. She added that “the U.S. just doesn’t graduate the number that we need to fill our vacancies.”
She was referring to a Department of Homeland Security policy the agency has been implementing since at least last August, which requires the agency to restrict many of its employment offers to people who have lived in the U.S. for three of the past five years. STAT reported last year that the FDA had directed hiring managers to limit their employment offers under the policy.
Keller said that the FDA is working through an “exception” process for people they “feel very strongly” about, and that the agency has taken the issue and “escalated” it up to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Keller also said the policy had been “an issue” for the National Institutes of Health, but an NIH spokeswoman said later it is not an issue for the agency.
FDA spokeswoman Tara Rabin later walked back Keller’s comments, saying “I wouldn’t characterize it as a challenge. It’s a policy we need to navigate with HHS’s help, in order to attract our talent.”
“There’s no complaints being escalated,” she added.
Rabin also told STAT the policy isn’t “precluding” the agency from hiring top talent and that there have been “no changes to our process.”
Neither DHS nor HHS, which oversees FDA, NIH and other health agencies, commented on the remarks.
FDA has for years struggled to hire and retain scientists, in part because of the agency’s inefficient hiring process, and in part because researchers might be lured away by higher pay or other perks in the private industry. In a June report to Congress, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote that some scientists are paid up to 46 percent below the market rate.
The agency has said that it could take up to 550 days to hire for certain positions. Keller added Thursday that, sometimes, prospective employees would receive offer letters with the wrong name or job title.
Over the past year, Keller has been leading an effort to revamp the hiring process, both by streamlining the agency’s procedures and taking advantage of authorities granted by the 21st Century Cures Act, passed in 2016, to hire certain people more quickly or pay them more.
Keller said that four individuals have been hired under the expanded authorities under 21st Century Cures, and that in the next “month or two,” the number of such hires should “increase dramatically.”
Keller said that in late July, the FDA started to post new job openings that will be managed under a more efficient process, which should reduce the time it takes to hire an employee to 80 to 140 business days. The positions that will be part of this new pilot program are in the FDA’s separate centers for drugs and biologics.
Keller made these remarks at a conference organized by the Association for Accessible Medicines, the generic drug industry’s trade group.