WASHINGTON – Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, who reportedly is in the running to head the National Institutes of Health, met with President-elect Donald Trump in New York Wednesday.
Harris, the lone Republican in Maryland’s congressional delegation, is also the only member of Congress to have conducted NIH-funded research.
The Johns Hopkins-educated anesthesiologist’s name has been tossed around for weeks as the possible new director of the medical research center in Bethesda, which has about 18,000 employees in the state.
“I am willing to help Mr. Trump in any way I can to make America great again,” Harris, R-Cockeysville, said in a statement. “Given my background as a physician and medical researcher, I provided input to help make sure that one of the Crown Jewels of the federal government, its medical research enterprise, is positioned not only to maintain, but to accelerate its world leadership position.”
Dr. Francis Collins, the agency’s current director, also attended a meeting Wednesday at Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan.
Collins is backed by several prominent Republicans, who sent a letter to Trump last month urging him to keep the director, who was appointed by President Barack Obama. Collins has also told multiple news organizations that it would be “a privilege” to remain at NIH.
“Dr. Collins is the right person, at the right time, to continue to lead the world’s premier biomedical research agency,” four lawmakers, including Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, wrote in the letter. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a former GOP presidential candidate, has also said he would like to see Collins remain at the helm of NIH.
But some in the scientific community want Trump to select new leadership.
In a letter addressed to Trump, Michael Eisen, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that Collins has “systematically undermined the effectiveness of the institution and overseen a decline of American science.”
Under Collins, Eisen said, NIH has “lost its way” and made it increasingly difficult for both well-established and new researchers to secure necessary grant funding.
Harris has called on Congress to push NIH to award more research grants to younger scientists. In a 2014 New York Times op-ed, Harris cited a National Bureau of Economic Research study that found most notable scientists come up with their ideas for a scientific breakthroughs in their mid- to late 30s, while the average age for first-time recipients of NIH’s most desired funding is 42.
Eisen said Harris’ interest in the issue is encouraging, though he doesn’t know enough information about the Baltimore County lawmaker to say if he’s the right choice for the job.
“He clearly cares about the NIH and wants it to be successful,” said Eisen, who is an investigator for the Chevy Chase-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “It’s a really good sign he would be willing to leave Congress to take on a somewhat thankless job. It signals to me he really wants to make the agency work.”
Some of Harris’ stances, however, could make him a controversial pick for the director position.
An abortion foe, Harris has long opposed stem cell research, and in 2005, he unsuccessfully spearheaded an effort to block the establishment of a stem cell research fund in Maryland. Last summer, he led a push to ban the discarding or destruction of embryos created by Department of Defense or Department of Veterans Affairs-funded treatments.
For Steven Salzberg, a biomedical engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University, it’s not Harris’ ideological positions that would make him a problematic pick.
“There are hundreds of men and women who are highly qualified scientists who know about biomedical research,” he said. “I would not choose a politician and Andy Harris is a politician.”