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Lester Crawford became Deputy Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration on February 25, 2002. He previously served as Administrator of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and twice as Director of FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. In 1991, he left the government to serve as Executive Vice President of the National Food Processors Association. He then went to the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, Georgetown University, and Virginia Tech before re-enlisting at FDA. Crawford is a Professional Member of IFT and a Fellow of the International Union of Food Science and Technology. In May, I had the opportunity to discuss with him science, policy, and practicalities. Here is how he answered my questions.
What is the most important issue facing FDA today? Bioterrorism is certainly the most important issue facing FDA today. Recent events have certainly sharpened our senses. We treat food safety, product safety, and product evaluation more seriously, scientifically, and more effectively as a result. FDA has received $155 million that will become part of FDA’s permanent budget to address bioterrorism. We have approval to hire 800 new people, which is the largest increase in FDA’s history. Three-fourths of those will be food inspectors. We have hired 650 since I started, so we’re off to a good start.
How do science and policy work together in the Agency? We need more science in policy, and we need to use science in a regularized way. To say that something is science-based is an absurd thing to say, because the best synonym for science is knowledge. So everything that you do that is innovative is knowledge-based. It is better to say that you are going to use risk management. Risk-based makes sense and implies science-based because the way you set up a risk-assessment model uses science. And risk-assessment models can define a scientific research agenda, because if you don’t have anything to plug in or if what you plug in is not significant, then you know where you need the research.
That means that you must have good risk-assessment models and people who are capable of providing the expertise and leadership in risk assessment. The Agency has to encourage and also do some risk-science type of projects. We contract for some research, and we also do some very applied research within the Centers. The National Toxicological Research Center in Arkansas conducts research that is targeted to regulatory issues. We may change the name, at some point, to the National Center for Risk Analysis because, again, that is what FDA really does.
The European Union employs the precautionary principle, and that is a less satisfactory approach. The precautionary principle means that you will take some prohibitive things and wait for the science to catch up. Let’s look at France as a microcosm with regard to the BSE problem. They essentially used the precautionary principle by not importing any meat from England, but they did not do a risk assessment. They did import animal feed, blood, and bovine blood products from England. In comparison, we used the precautionary principle by banning British imports and conducted a risk assessment. Eighteen months later, we delisted certain items—such as gelatin and certain blood products—based on the risk assessment. We did not say that this is doomsday. That’s antithetical to science and to risk assessment. We kept BSE out, and they didn’t.
How can scientists begin to understand policy? It’s experience. I just got through last summer reading the book From Dawn to Decadence [by Jacques Barzun]—a fantastic book. The author is 89 years old and was a professor at Columbia. Reviewers asked him how he could write a book that traces civilization from the time of Columbus to the present time. He said that he could not have written it before he was 89 because he did not have enough experience. And I could not have done this before I was 64. Everybody is different, and you have to bring your personality into it and you’ve got to go with what you’ve got.
I think that all scientists should understand policy. Steven J. Gould, whom I knew through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), was an excellent example of a scientist who appreciated policy. He understood policy and contributed to it, and it made him a citizen of the world, not just a citizen of the laboratory. Understanding policy lets scientists know the obstacles to getting research translated, and your influence and audience broaden as you become a public figure.
Why did you put time in your schedule to speak to AAAS Fellows during orientation? Mentoring is very important. I have spent an equal amount of time in industry, academia, and government, but I am painfully aware of the importance of bringing along the next generation of professionals because I’ve seen shortages. It’s no different being at FDA; I spend about 1–5% of my time mentoring. I still talk to students that I taught at the University of Georgia in 1966, and some are actually retired now!
Finally, what do you want to tell IFT? IFT is a very professional organization and yet a convivial one. I value my IFT membership because the programs are constructive and useful. I applaud IFT for opening the Washington, D.C., office because a DC location offers a much better opportunity to influence policy.
by MONICA FANJOY
2001–02 IFT-AAAS Congressional Science Fellow