Sammies awards for federal workers honor science

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was named Federal Employee of the Year during the program sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit think tank that promotes good government and federal employees.

His selection and the honoring of other government scientists amounted to an understated, if unintended, rebuke to a Trump administration known for undermining science when it doesn’t fit the preferred political narrative.

While there has “always been some degree of political friction” in the numerous high-profile public health efforts he has participated in, Fauci, without mentioning President Trump during a telephone interview, said the current level of politics in science “definitely supersedes any of the other ones.”

All the honorees “represent the many exceptional federal employees who have proudly and passionately dedicated their lives to making a difference for our country and our world,” said a statement by Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and chief executive. “They have broken down barriers, pioneered new frontiers of medicine, protected our nation from cybersecurity threats and helped our nation during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.”

In recent years, the Sammies were presented at a black-tie gala designed to elevate the status of public servants, who too often have been denigrated, primarily by Republicans, as out-of-touch bureaucrats and by Trump as swamp dwellers. This year the ceremony was a virtual affair that aired on Bloomberg Television and streamed live on several websites, including the Partnership’s YouTube page. It’s a good show, well-produced, tight at one hour and worth checking out.

The Partnership is strictly nonpartisan, as demonstrated by video remarks from former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and a letter from Trump that said, “America is blessed with unparalleled strength and prosperity thanks to millions of government employees.” Speaking of public servants, Obama said that “in this current moment, their contributions are even more critical, as we face down this pandemic and the economic uncertainty it’s brought with it.”

Trump, however, doesn’t appear to appreciate those contributions if they conflict with his good-news coronavirus messaging. The selection of Fauci, known for his straightforward and honest words during the pandemic, provides a stark contrast with Trump’s downplaying of the virus and his undercutting of federal scientists, including at times Fauci.

With more than 210,000 coronavirus-related deaths, the United States leads the world with more than 20 percent of its fatalities from 4 percent of the globe’s population. The nation’s per capital coronavirus death toll is higher than many countries, including poorer places such as South Africa, Iran and Iraq.

Fauci also maintains a nonpartisan stance, yet he is clearly concerned about the politicization of science here and abroad. A federal government science award “sends a signal that we feel that science prevails as being very important and really trumps everything else,” he said. “When you think about the truth and the evidence that you need when you’re dealing with a pandemic, it’s the science that counts, not anything else.”

Government scientists were prominently featured in other award categories, as described by the Partnership:

Ira Pastan, of the National Cancer Institute, was awarded the Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement Medal for discovering “a breakthrough class of drugs to successfully treat a rare but deadly form of cancer, called hairy cell leukemia, in patients who have few other treatment options.”

Vikram Krishnasamy, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was awarded the Emerging Leaders Medal for creating “a medical command center that assisted thousands of patients left without medical care” after 60 medical professionals in six states were arrested on opioid charges in 2019.

Neil C. Evans, Kathleen L. Frisbee and Kevin Galpin, of the Department of Veterans Affairs, were awarded the Management Excellence Medal for developing “innovative and accelerated efforts on telehealth, mobile apps and other virtual health care options for more than 9 million veterans.”

Donna F. Dodson, formerly of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, was awarded the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal for her role in developing a guide “to help manage cybersecurity risks and prevent, detect and respond to cyberattacks,” and for playing “a key role in establishing the nation’s first open and commercially available encryption standards.”

Beth Ripley, of the Department of Veterans Affairs, was awarded the Science and Environment Award for “creating an interconnected, hospital-based 3D printing network that enables surgeons to scrutinize exact 3D models of their patients’ organs and tissues to prepare for upcoming procedures.”

Lorraine Cole and Corvelli A. McDaniel, of the Treasury Department, received the People’s Choice Award in August for creating the Mentor-Protégé Program “in which large commercial financial institutions provide management and technical assistance to help small and minority-owned banks strengthen their balance sheets and better serve low-income communities.”

The awards underscore the importance of the jobs that people in the federal government have even as, Fauci said, “sometimes, maybe even more often than not, the federal government gets criticized for so many things.”  

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