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Speculation swirls about Obama's EPA and FDA heads

The science community is abuzz with speculation about who President-elect Barack Obama's picks will be to run two key agencies that consumer groups charge buckled to industry pressure during the Bush administration. Enviros, researchers and company execs are all jockeying for candidates to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when Obama takes the reins.

The Associated Press reports that "more than a half-dozen names are in circulation," for the top FDA job, including the Cleveland Clinic's Steven Nissen, a cardiologist and prominent whistleblower who was an early critic of Vioxx, the blockbuster drug that Merck pulled off the market amid concerns that it dramatically ups the risk of heart attacks in vulnerable patients. Another public advocate mentioned by the AP is Joshua Sharfstein, commissioner of Baltimore's health department. Sharfstein, a former aide to California Rep. Henry Waxman, took up a high-profile fight to curb young children's use of over-the-counter cough medicines, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Drugmakers are pushing pharma-friendly FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock for the top slot, Bloomberg News reports. Woodcock, an internist and rheumatologist, has served in the FDA for 22 years; she now heads the agency's drug division.

Another candidate reported to be in the running: George Washington University occupational and environmental health Prof. Susan Wood, who directed the FDA's Office of Women's Health until "she resigned on principle over the continued delay in approving emergency over-the-counter contraception" in 2005, according to her bio on the university's Web site.

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women & Families, told Bloomberg that her organization "is discussing the possibility of recommending FDA candidates with a coalition of groups," but notes that she would back Nissen, Sharfstein or Wood.

Bloomberg's projected short list for EPA top dog: Democratic Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, 60, once considered to have a shot at Obama's veep slot ultimately filled by Delaware Sen. Joe Biden; Kathleen McGinty, former secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection; Mary Nichols, chair of California's Air Resources Board; and Ian Bowles, secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

A flashier but potentially fiery pick, according to Bloomberg: enviro activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., scion of the Kennedy dynasty and occasional Rolling Stone contributor. Kennedy, 54, son of Ethel and the late Sen. Robert Kennedy, chairs the Waterkeeper Alliance, an organization based in Irvington, N.Y., dedicated to promoting clean water, but he has taken some heat from the science community for his belief in a connection between autism and vaccines, an issue examined in detail by Scientific American Mind columnists Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz in 2007.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate

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