Bertagnolli Takes NIH Helm

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (@NIH) finally has a new director. On November 7, 2023 the U.S. Senate approved the nomination of Monica Bertagnolli, previously director of the National Cancer Institute (@theNCI) , to be the 17th director of the NIH. Dr. Bertagnolli is only the second woman, along with Bernadine Healy who served from 1991 – 1993, to serve in the post. Ruth Kirschtein was acting director twice.

Bertagnolli replaces Francis Collins, who was director from 2009 – 2021. Since Collins’ departure, Lawrence Tabak, NIH Principal Deputy Director, has served as Acting Director.

President Joe Biden nominated Bertagnolli in May 2023. Unfortunately, her nomination, which should have been swiftly approved by the Senate (the nominations of the last three NIH directors were approved within a month of their official nominations) ran into a political buzzsaw that does not involve the NIH at all.

The question of the high costs of prescription drugs in the United States has been a topic of concern on Capitol Hill for many years. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (@SenSanders), the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee which has policy jurisdiction over the NIH, has been insisting that federal agency heads that come before the HELP committee commit to take actions to lower the costs of prescription drugs. He was particularly insistent that Bertagnolli take a position, even though the NIH has little or no authority over the price of drugs. This delayed Senate approval of Bertagnolli’s nomination for six months.

When the HELP Committee approved Bertagnolli’s nomination, Sanders was one of only six of 21 members of the committee to vote against her. When the full Senate approved her nomination, Sanders said he would vote against her because, “she has not convinced me that she is prepared to take on the greed and power of the drug companies and health care industry and fight for the transformative changes the NIH needs at this critical moment.”

Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) (@SenFettermanPA) was the only Democrat to vote against Bertagnolli, saying “While I believe that Dr. Bertagnolli is highly qualified to serve in this role, I’m not convinced that she will take on Big Pharma — and for that reason I will vote against her confirmation.”

About the Author:

Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: