Report says personnel shortage hinders biodefense efforts

A shortage of scientific and medical personnel is jeopardizing the ability of federal biodefense agencies to fend off a biological attack, a government reform group said yesterday.

First responders at the state and local level, regional vaccine stockpiling, and bioweapon monitors in big cities have attracted funding and resources. But the federal civil service, which populates the national biodefense agencies, needs revamping, according to the report from The Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization whose high-profile board members represent government, industry, education, labor and the media.

Federal resources would be required to respond to a widespread terror attack, such as anthrax distributed through aerosol weapons.

The report, Homeland Insecurity: Building the Expertise to Defend America from Bioterrorism, recommended that the federal government first conduct a national audit of its biodefense work force needs and create a single point of accountability to monitor federal biodefense staffing. (Click for link to PDF, 36 pages)

The group interviewed 30 biodefense officials and experts working within or with the Health and Human Services Department's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Food and Drug Administration; and the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and Food Safety and Inspection Service.

In October 2001, anthrax sent through the mail practically shut down the Senate. 'The bioterrorist threat is real and only likely to grow more ominous in the future,' said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and a board member of the partnership.

Congress should expand agencies' authority to compensate staff based on merit and other market incentives to attract and retain biodefense experts, the report said. Congress also should change regulations to simplify the federal hiring process, which takes too long between advertising for a position and filling it.

'There is a shortage of needed scientific and medical employees entering the field just as large numbers of federal biodefense employees are expected to retire,' said Collins, who later this year plans to hold hearings and introduce legislation to give agencies flexibility in hiring practices.

Among the 35,000 employees at the five agencies, almost half of the biological sciences and medical staff will be eligible for retirement over the next five years, the report said. And while the Bureau of Labor Statistics has said demand for scientists will increase by 20 percent, the Education Department has said colleges and universities are graduating fewer scientists.

Recent graduates are not seeking government positions as in past decades. Teachers don't talk up government service in the classrooms, said Dr. Tara O'Toole, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, and a former government public health official. 'And after a decade of government bashing, we're losing people to retirement and not attracting young talent,' she said.

The report recommends establishing a biodefense institute to provide training for those already working in biology and medicine and offering scholarships or debt forgiveness to students in exchange for a commitment to service. Another program could target mid-career experts to rotate jobs for a few years between the public and private sectors.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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