A surgeon well versed in the politics of science is set to become the next Majority Leader of the United States Senate. Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) is expected to take the powerful post after Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) announced today that he will not seek another stint in the job. Lott resigned after coming under heavy criticism for making remarks that appeared to endorse past racist policies.
Frist, 50, has served in the Senate for 8 years. A member of one of Tennessee's most prominent families, Frist worked as a heart surgeon and conducted biomedical research. In the Senate, he has become one of the body's leading experts on health care, bioterrorism, AIDS, and cloning. He led the Senate's Science and Technology Caucus and helped write provisions promoting science and math education in a recent bill that calls for doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF). He has also supported hefty budget increases for the National Institutes of Health and other science agencies. As Majority Leader, he will play a major role in setting the Senate's priorities and schedule.
Science advocates are generally upbeat about the switch. “He understands science and knows that the agencies that support research are important,” says Sam Rankin, a lobbyist with the American Mathematical Society and head of a coalition that pushes for greater NSF funding.
But some biomedical groups fear Frist's arrival will strengthen efforts to ban research involving the cloning of human embryos. Earlier this year, he backed legislation that would have banned both cloning to create babies and cloning to produce cells for research and, possibly, medical treatments. Most researchers supported a competing bill that would have outlawed human cloning but allowed regulated research to continue. The issue is still unresolved, and Frist's record suggests that the more restrictive bill could now gain the upper hand, Congress watchers say.
Frist is expected to ascend to the top job on 9 January, when the 51 Republican members of the Senate meet in Washington to elect their leader.
AAAS Policy Brief: Human Cloning