Leavitt Picked to Head HHS

In an unexpected cabinet shuffle, the Bush Administration today nominated Michael Leavitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to take over the reins at the Department of Health and Human Services. He will replace Tommy Thompson, who announced his resignation earlier this month.

The front-runner was thought to be Mark McClellan, a physician and economist who now heads Medicare. But some observers are pleased with Leavitt, citing his reputation as a political moderate and supporter of biotechnology as three-term governor of Utah. "I think he'll be terrific," says Stephen Prescott, executive director of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation at the University of Utah.

Leavitt spent only 13 months at EPA, where he was confirmed in November 2003 after the resignation of Christine Todd Whitman. Former science chief Paul Gilman says Leavitt insisted on grounding regulations in science, although many environmentalists feel the agency has been too friendly to industry. But even its critics agree that EPA has avoided the self-inflicted wounds suffered by HHS for its alleged politicization of advisory committees (Science, 16 July).

As governor of Utah, Leavitt was a strong proponent of state support for technology to boost the state's economy. His administration expanded engineering education at universities and helped fund a non-profit genetic and demographic database on Utah's population. "He was a very big supporter of science with a public health impact," Prescott says.

Leavitt's views on human embryonic stem cells, a likely hot-button issue next year, are not known. That and drug safety reviews at the FDA, which is under his jurisdiction, are likely to be discussed at Leavitt's Senate confirmation hearing early next year.

Related site
Leavitt's biography (from the EPA)