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Biomedical Research: HHS Has Not Yet Used New Authorities to Improve Recruitment and Retention of Scientists

GAO-20-531R Published: May 08, 2020. Publicly Released: May 08, 2020.
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Fast Facts

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has had trouble recruiting and retaining medical, engineering, and other science and technology professionals to support activities like biomedical and clinical research. This research can include studies of HIV, flu, and COVID-19.

The 21st Century Cures Act provides additional hiring and retention authority—allowing HHS to hire up to 2,000 scientists with certain specialized graduate degrees, and increasing top pay to hire and retain an expert staff.

HHS is preparing guidance based on discussion with its agencies to implement the Act’s recruitment and retention flexibilities.

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What GAO Found

On April 20, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued regulations for the recruitment and retention of research scientists actively engaged in biomedical research or clinical research evaluation to support its mission. This was done to implement authorities provided by the 21st Century Cures Act (enacted in December 2016). HHS officials said that the HHS agencies that are expected to use the authority for recruitment and retention are National Institutes of Health (NIH), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

According to HHS officials, the department is preparing guidance based on discussion with its agencies for the allocation of specific membership slots for each agency for recruitment and retention. NIH and FDA officials told GAO that after they receive their membership slots, they would begin their recruitment and retention process. FDA officials said that process could take up to 6 months until scientists are selected.

Why GAO Did This Study

HHS has cited difficulties in recruiting and retaining individuals in medicine, science, engineering, and other related fields to support its mission. Since 2001, GAO has designated strategic human capital management as a government-wide high-risk area in part because of the need to address current and emerging skills gaps that are undermining agencies' abilities to meet their missions. HHS agencies have cited difficulties recruiting and retaining scientists for a variety of reasons, including pay that is not competitive with the private sector. To provide additional hiring and retention authority to HHS, the 21st Century Cures Act revised and renamed one mechanism as the Silvio O. Conte Senior Biomedical Research and Biomedical Product Assessment Service (the Service). Among other things, it provides for the appointment of up to 2,000 scientists—1,500 more than the prior authorization—with doctoral or master's degrees in specialized areas (such as engineering, bioinformatics and related fields), and increases the top pay to be consistent with the President's salary.

The Act also included a provision that GAO report on the extent to which the recruitment and retention of biomedical research scientists and those in related fields at HHS has been affected by these amendments. In this report, GAO describes HHS's efforts to implement the recruitment and retention authorities of the Service. To do so, GAO reviewed documentation about various hiring mechanisms, including the Service. GAO also interviewed departmental officials at HHS, as well as agency officials at NIH and FDA, about their implementation efforts.

For more information, contact Mary Denigan-Macauley at 202-512-7114 or

Full Report

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