12 Dec, 16 | by Iain Brassington
In the latest edition of “Dude, really?” news to come from the post-election US…
Wait: let me start that again. In the latest edition-that-I’ve-had-time-to-digest-because-I-really-can’t-keep-up-with-this-stuff edition of “Dude, really?” news to come from the post-election US, it would appear that a strong candidate to head the Food and Drug Administration under Donald Trump is one Jim O’Neill. According to the Scientific American,
O’Neill would be an unusual choice. He is not a physician, and lacks the strong science background that nearly all former commissioners have had in recent years.
A graduate of Yale University, with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, O’Neill went to work at the Department of Health and Human Services in 2002, after a stint as speechwriter at the Department of Education. He worked his way up to principal associate deputy secretary, where he advised the HHS Secretary on all areas of policy, according to his LinkedIn page.
Now, so far, that is probably not too big a deal. Since the head of the FDA is not actually involved in doing any bench science, the fact that he lacks a strong science or medical background needn’t matter too much. What does matter is that the person in charge of the agency should be able to to consult the right kind of person and so on: in other words, to be broadly scientifically literate, and to have access to specialists. That sets a much lower bar. Medical or pharmacological expertise, after all, is much more likely to mean expertise in one comparatively narrow area within each subject than it is to mean a thoroughgoing expertise in the whole field; therefore even someone with a strong science background would have to rely on advice from others when it comes to things outside the postholder’s particular area of study. Indeed, by the time you’ve worked up the administrative experience to lead an agency, it’s probably a while since you cleaned your last test-tube – so even your notional expertise may not be quite as cutting edge as you’d like to think. And, working the other way, being a whizz-bang scientist is perfectly compatible with being terrible at what is essentially a senior civil-service gig.
So… not a medic, not a scientist? Not necessarily a problem. You just have to know which people to ask what questions – and that’s what you’d be doing anyway.*
But, of course, there’s a “but”. Actually, there’s several “but”s.
Like, for example, it’s one thing not to have a strong scientific background; but it’s quite another to reveal that more…