Monica Bertagnolli will be the second woman to serve as a confirmed director of the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s premier federal medical research agency.
Bertagnolli was confirmed to the post by a 62-36 vote Tuesday. She replaces Lawrence Tabak, who has been acting director for nearly two years.
Bertagnolli’s appointment comes at a time when the public’s trust in medical science has fallen in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. She has pledged to work to reverse that trend.
“I am committed to ensuring that NIH continues to be the steward of our nation’s medical research and a force of innovation and discovery,” Bertagnolli said last month at her nomination hearing. She is an oncologist who’ll be leaving her post as head of the National Cancer Institute.
President Joe Biden tapped Bertagnolli to lead the health agency in May, but her nomination hearing was held up for months by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who runs the committee responsible for confirming NIH directors. Sanders held a confirmation hearing and vote for Bertagnolli after the White House promised to keep working on lowering the price of drugs.
Despite this assurance, Sanders voted against Bertagnolli’s nomination last month—and against her confirmation today—after she failed to reassure him that she’d use her power as NIH director to lower the cost of prescription drugs.
“Dr. Monica Bertagnolli is an intelligent and caring person, but she has not convinced me that she is prepared to take on the greed and power of the drug companies and health care industry and fight for the transformative changes the NIH needs at this critical moment,” Sanders said on the Senate floor ahead of the confirmation vote.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, alternatively, voted to advance and confirm Bertagnolli. He said he was hopeful that she wouldn’t bow to political pressure from progressives and over-exert her authority to lower the price of prescription drugs and stifle innovation.
Bertagnolli is only guaranteed to hold her presidentially appointed role for a little more than a year and would still need be sworn in before she could officially taking over the top NIH job.
Francis S. Collins, the last Senate-confirmed NIH director, assumed the role 10 days after his Senate confirmation. Like Bertagnolli, Collins already worked at the NIH before his appointment to lead the agency.
But Bertagnolli will likely face a tough year ahead funding-wise as the House Republicans want to cut NIH funding by $3.8 billion to $43 billion in FY 2024. Republicans that have led billions in increases for medical research spending over the past eight years are no longer on the labor-HHS appropriations panels in the House and Senate.
Even if the NIH’s funding remains flat at $47 billion in 2024, that will translate to cuts in real dollars.
At the urging of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bertagnolli pledged in August not to join or accept compensation from large pharmaceutical firms for four years following her tenure in government service. Warren, in her effort to stop the revolving door between former federal employees and the private sector, said she wouldn’t back anyone who refused this commitment.
Bertagnolli’s confirmation was met with widespread approval from advocacy organizations.
“At this critical time for innovation at the NIH, Dr. Bertagnolli will be the visionary leader we need,” said Ellen Sigal, chairperson and founder of Friends of Cancer Research. “The Senate’s strong bipartisan confirmation vote affirms the support she will have to helm this storied institution.”
“Her extensive experience as a scientist, physician and surgeon has granted her first-hand knowledge of the importance of accelerating progress in cancer innovation and a deep understanding of the needs for cancer patients that will provide a strong and unique foundation to guide her tenure. In short, she is a game changer,” Karen Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said in a statement.