WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration needs to hire scores of in-demand scientists, and that difficult task could become even harder if the agency gives in to pressure from either Republicans or the Biden administration to return federal workers to the office.
There are more than 2,000 vacancies at the FDA right now — a number in keeping with past years, but one that underscores the agency’s constant difficulties hiring and keeping enough scientists to meet its vast responsibilities with respect to food and medical reviews. The FDA already got Congress to give it the power to pay bigger annual salaries for scientists to help it compete for talented officials, but even its highest annual offerings fall far short of what experienced staff could make in the private sector.
Letting people work from home has been a game-changer for the agency — and losing it could make filling those vacancies much harder. In a 2021 survey of staff in the FDA’s centers that review new medicines, more than a quarter said they’d consider leaving their jobs if they were allowed to work from home more often elsewhere. Human resources staff at the agency listed it as one of the top reasons turnover might soon increase, too, in the same poll.
And it’s not clear how long the hybrid work environment will last for federal government employees. House Republicans this year passed a bill that would require federal employees to revert to the office policies from before the pandemic, and while it hasn’t advanced in the Democratic Senate, the White House isn’t entirely opposed to the idea: last month, the Biden administration made it clear it wants federal employees to work in person more often.
Telework “may mean the difference between a good candidate joining the agency or passing on an opportunity there,” said Cynthia Bens, senior vice president of public policy for the Personalized Medicine Coalition, an advocacy group for medicines that target individual patients.
Hiring is top of mind at the FDA right now because a 2022 funding law authorized more than 350 new medical product staff positions. It’s already filled more than 100 of those jobs, but the agency still needs to hire experts who are particularly sought after in the private sector, including scientists and statisticians who can review biologic drugs and cell and gene therapies and work in manufacturing.
And it’s not just the drugmakers picking off FDA employees these days. Many of the people the FDA is trying to attract also are in high demand in the technology industry.
“It turns out that if you’re a statistician or even epidemiologist, those skills are highly valued at internet companies, whether they’re related to health care or not,” said FDA Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research Director Peter Marks at a recent event about how FDA is handling budget challenges.
Patrizia Cavazzoni, who heads FDA’s drug evaluation and research center, said at the same event the number of doctoral statisticians graduating from U.S. universities has been stagnant for several years while demand for them grows in Silicon Valley as artificial intelligence takes off.
“Everybody is competing for that talent,” she said.
There are some, like Nancy Bradish Myers, CEO of Catalyst Healthcare Consulting, who think returning to the office may help the careers of young scientists who need mentorship that is difficult to provide over Zoom, though she said she doesn’t know that it would help with recruitment.
It’s not clear how often the FDA will make employees go to the office in the future. Some, like laboratory staff, weren’t ever able to work from home, for example. Others have been coming in more often in recent months under a hybrid office model that the agency put into effect this year, according to an agency spokesperson.
But the memo announcing the administration’s telework guidance leaves much to the discretion of federal agency heads, and it does not give clear instructions for the next steps.
Approximately 10,500 FDA union employees will continue to be covered by a contract that allows them to work from home as often as eight days every two weeks, if approved by their supervisor, according to the National Treasury Employees Union. Supervisors and managers, however — among the most difficult to fill positions — are not part of the union.
It’s doubtful that the FDA would get rid of telework entirely, according to Ellen Sigal, founder of the patient group Friends of Cancer Research.
“This train has left the station,” Sigal said. “We’re never going to go back to 100% in person, but what the hybrid will look like is unknown.”