The recent resignation of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius prompts a revisit of the slow march from nominee to confirmation. While the President acted quickly to nominate Sylvia Burwell (current Director of the Office of Management and Budget) to replace Sebelius, the continuing paralysis of the Senate may mean it will be several months before she takes the job.
Normally the Secretary is, oddly enough, distanced from many of the science and technology functions the Department deals with. But with the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Public Health Service (headed by the Surgeon General), the Presidential Commission for the Study of Biomedical Issues, and various research programs connected to Medicare and similar health programs, it would be tough for a Secretary to be completely detached from such actions. In the case of Secretary Sebelius, perhaps her most controversial science and technology action is her decision to overrule the FDA in connection with the availability of emergency contraception. While I doubt it will come up during the confirmation hearings, I think there will be an attempt to revisit the decision with a new person in charge of the Department.
(While we’re on the subject of Health and Human Services nominations, it’s worth noting that the latest attempt to nominate a Surgeon General has been blocked due – at least in part – on the refusal of some Senators to accept the nominee’s opinion that gun violence is a public health issue.)