FDA’s negative image hurts recruitment, report finds

Alexander Raths/Shutterstock.com

The Food and Drug Administration has struggled to attract top scientists in part because of its negative reputation, despite a workforce that is highly educated and committed to the agency’s mission, according to a new report.

“The FDA routinely has come under the congressional spotlight and been criticized for either being too lax or too stringent with the industries it regulates,” concluded a report from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service that looked at the state of the agency’s workforce and its recruiting and retention challenges. “While the political dynamic will always be part of the process and difficult for the FDA to control, its impact can hurt morale and create an image that may discourage prospective employees.”

The Partnership found that scientists do not perceive FDA as a place where they can innovate, compared to academia, industry or at the National Institutes of Health, for example. “One biologist said it took her seven years to get over the ‘FDA stigma’ and actually make the leap to come to work at the agency,” the report stated. “Even though the work at the FDA was more in line with her field and what she wanted to pursue, she refused job offers after hearing negative comments about the FDA and having the feeling that the FDA was not the place for top scientists. This sentiment was echoed by many reviewers and scientists who work at the FDA.”

The agency’s reputation took a hit earlier this year when current and former employees sued the agency in January, alleging that FDA retaliated against them for being whistleblowers by monitoring their personal email accounts.

In addition, tight budgets over the years and an intense workload have affected recruitment, retention and agency morale. While Congress increased FDA’s budget to $2.5 billion by fiscal 2012, which enabled the agency to hire more employees in critical areas, lawmakers also have added to the agency’s responsibilities during the past few years. For example, FDA now is responsible for regulating tobacco products.

Still, FDA employees are very satisfied and committed to their jobs, and believe their skills dovetail with the agency’s mission, the report said. Its well-educated and dedicated workforce of nearly 15,000 is one of the agency’s strongest assets, the report said. And the agency is trying to fix its hiring, training and retention problems, the Partnership concluded. FDA has developed a comprehensive human capital plan that analyzes gaps in the workforce and creates a roadmap for improving hiring and retention. It also has created an exchange program for scientists from academia and other organizations to work at the agency for short-term assignments. And in July, FDA’s human resources office was moved back into the agency from parent Health and Human Services Department. FDA officials told the Partnership that they are determined to rebuild the agency’s HR processes, including expediting hiring and providing more training opportunities for employees.

“How this is carried out and the degree to which FDA supervisors and managers are involved will be major determinants in the agency’s efforts to meet its goals,” the report said.

Among its recommendations, the Partnership encouraged FDA to develop long-term relationships with academia and the private sector to attract the kind of scientific talent it needs now and in the future. “Our review found the agency has not been proactive in this regard,” stated the report.

FDA did not respond to Government Executive’s request for comment.

The Partnership for Public Service, which analyzed the FDA’s workforce at the request of the Pew Charitable Trusts, conducted its research between November 2011 and January 2012. Pew’s Innovate FDA project is studying the agency’s regulatory review process, scientific tools and workforce needs.

(Image via Alexander Raths/Shutterstock.com)

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