Strides made by the FDA to compete with the private sector in recruiting top scientists could go up in smoke if the government shutdown continues, consultants knowledgeable about the FDA and federal hiring practices told Bloomberg Law.

The Food and Drug Administration has struggled for years with recruiting challenges due to a confluence of factors—including bureaucratic hiring requirements, and the need to fill specialized positions as the medicines it regulates become more complex and advanced. Supervisory positions are particularly hard to fill—a need that will become even more critical as almost half the agency’s senior leaders will be eligible for retirement by fiscal year 2020, according to an FDA report to Congress.

And the shutdown could hurt the agency’s ability to fill those critical vacancies.

“The longer it goes on, certainly I think the harder it will be to continue to recruit professionals,” Kalah Auchincloss, senior vice president of regulatory compliance and deputy general counsel for FDA regulatory consulting firm Greenleaf Health, told Bloomberg Law. “People really want to work there. But if this is going to keep going, it could be difficult.”

“When you have a shutdown, it really does start to impede the idea of the government as a good place to work,” Mallory Bulman said. She’s vice president of research evaluation for the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that focuses on improving government efficiency, including federal hiring practices.

Longer Shutdown, More Problems

The 21st Century Cures Law (Pub. L. 114-255) tried to address the FDA’s hiring challenges by raising the salary cap for specialized positions and providing ways to accelerate the hiring process. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and his predecessor Robert M. Califf have both said these provisions were critical to fulfilling the 2016 law’s mission of spurring new drugs and devices.

Auchincloss, who prior to joining Greenleaf was the deputy chief of staff for both Califf and Gottlieb and worked on the 21st Century Cures law as a Senate staffer, said it can take months to a year for the FDA to make a job offer.

“In that timeframe, the really highly qualified people can get multiple offers and take those because they can’t wait forever for FDA to actually make them an offer or actually bring them on board,” she said.

STEM Shortages

Federal agencies already struggle to hire top talent in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and medical professions even when there’s no shutdown, Bulman said. There’s a shortage of STEM workers in the nation’s overall labor market, and on top of that, STEM graduates can make more money in the private sector, particularly after a few years of working in the public sector, she noted.

“Agencies such as FDA really need top doctors and science and engineering and technical talent in order to be able to deliver on their mission,” Bulman told Bloomberg Law. “When an agency is shut down, you undermine the ability of the agency to be seen as an employer of choice for top talent.”

Steven A. Grossman, of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, said the agency “undoubtedly” loses recruits at an earlier stage, particularly in more specialized fields that are already highly competitive for new talent.

Ross McKinney Jr., who as chief scientific officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges heads up the association’s workforce development effort, said he doesn’t expect prospective FDA employees to be deterred by a temporary, uncommon scenario like a shutdown.

“If you have a passion for being involved in the development of drugs or being involved in the interface between science and patient care at an FDA level, then having a shutdown’s not going to affect your decision,” McKinney said.

Likewise, Auchincloss said, while the shutdown could be a deterrent, “in my experience, people that do work at the agency are dedicated public servants and really do want to be there.”

Already Impacting Hiring

The shutdown has already stymied the FDA’s hiring. Gottileb tweeted Jan. 7 that 32 new staffers joined the agency, but that’s fewer than half the number of employees the agency expected to onboard that day. Those new employees could be furloughed soon after starting their work if the leftover user fees that are funding them run out. The FDA can’t accept new user fees during a shutdown.

“If the government doesn’t reopen, that money will go away,” Auchincloss said, “And the people who are only working at FDA because they’re working on user-fee funded projects will be furloughed.”

—With assistance from Jacquie Lee