Commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Scott Gottlieb, has stated that the FDA has a ‘substantial’ amount of job vacancies to fill. Yet, new hiring policies that were just introduced at the beginning of August would make it harder for foreign scientists to be employed.

Hiring managers in the US were instructed not to extend job offers to any individual who has not lived in the country for at least three of the five previous years. This has been attributed to new changes in the information required through background checks, which is compulsory for every government employee to obtain an ID card.

This change is expected to take effect on 1 October this year – and has since left some FDA staff “dismayed” and “stunned”.

A move that brings ‘dismay’ to many at the FDA

“It affects a huge chunk of the scientific workforce,” expressed one scientist, who chose to remain anonymous because she was not authorised to speak on the matter. “We all heard the presentation and went, ‘What?'”

She added that such a change would be “devastating” for the agency’s talent pool and recruitment efforts. She suggested that many of the FDA’s most valuable employees would not have been hired had the policy been in place then. According to a review of agency directories, the FDA employs more than 100 visiting scientists and associates.

Scott Gottlieb, Commissioner of FDA says the agency has a ‘substantial’ amount of job vacancies to fill. Photo credit: FiercePharma
Scott Gottlieb, Commissioner of FDA says the agency has a ‘substantial’ amount of job vacancies to fill. Photo credit: FiercePharma

The stringency of the new policy and the words of FDA Commissioner Gottlieb appear to be at odds.

Only the month before the policy came to light, the Commissioner had stated in a blog post that “Too many [FDA] positions remain vacant,the backlog is substantial”, and that “[the FDA’s] goals will be to speed the hiring process”.

It is unclear whether all other relevant agencies are introducing similar measures. Nonetheless, this could have implications for the size of the talent pool and research community in the United States.

Stricter measures due to insufficient evidence for background checks

In the US, nearly every government employee must receive a Personal Identity Verification (PIV) Card to be able to conduct their work. As part of the requirements, every employee must undergo a mandatory, relatively standard background check to obtain the card.

An FDA spokeswoman stated that the new, stricter measures were in accordance with guidance from the Department of Homeland Security, whose jurisdiction the issue of employees’ PIV cards falls under.

“The agency is committed to accurately reflect the DHS policy and will continue to evaluate its implementation plans, and make adjustments as appropriate,” the spokeswoman said.

Now, the tighter measures of the FDA stem from policy changes to the issuance of these PIV cards – the government now requests more information as part of the background check, which cannot be obtained unless the individual has lived in the US for three of the last five years.

As such, an FDA document recommends “that hiring managers inquire of prospective hires how long they have resided in the US prior to extending an offer.”

Workarounds not applicable for FDA new hires

Prior to this, there had been no “three-out-of-five” criterion specified. Although from 2008 onwards, the official government-wide policy on the ID cards does make a distinction between non-citizens who have lived in the US for a minimum of three years, and those who have not.

Under the 2008 policy, even non-citizens who have lived in the US for less than three years may be employed. The compulsory background check is delayed until the employee in question has lived in the US for three years. (They use a different ID card while waiting.)

Other government agencies could find workarounds for this change in policy. For instance, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – which receives thousands of foreign scientists from more than 100 countries each year – non-citizen new hires have been permitted to undergo a separate background check to obtain a “Restricted Local Access” card, instead. This allows them to be hired, although they will not have unrestricted access to government databases. According to an NIH spokeswoman, this hiring process is not likely to change.

It is definitely clear that workarounds like this will no longer be available at the FDA after 1 October. However, the FDA document also stated that the change would not impact non-citizen workers currently employed at the agency.

Already President Trump’s travel ban earlier this year has had an impact on the industry and academia. With this new hiring policy, the scientific community, which relies heavily on international collaboration, would very much likely be affected. MIMS

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