Andrew Harris of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine on moving from medicine to politics:
A triple alumnus of The Johns Hopkins University (B.S. in biology, 1976; M.D., 1980; M.P.H., 1995), Andy Harris is an anesthesiologist and a U.S. congressman representing Maryland's first district. Before being elected to Congress in 2010, he was a senator in the Maryland General Assembly since 1998. He is currently a member of the House Committee on Appropriations and previously served as the chairman for the environmental subcommittee on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
Why did you decide to go into politics?
HARRIS: I’ve always been interested in policy and politics, partly because of my background. My parents had escaped communism in Hungary and Poland and realized the importance of being involved in government … In 1995, I got a master’s degree from the School of Public Health in health policy, finance and management because I was interested in many aspects of health policy: how it affects the practice of medicine and, to some extent, the finance of medicine.
And then I saw that the government was regulating more and more of how medicine is practiced, but that physicians were underrepresented in Congress relative to the amount of health care policy that moves through the legislature. There are only 17 physicians in the House (out of 435) and three in the Senate (out of 100), but well over a quarter of our federal expenditures are on health care--and that’s not even including biomedical research. I saw a need for people with real-world experience.
How did you make the transition?
HARRIS: It’s relatively simple in Maryland because the state Senate meets only three months per year, so it's easy to build that into your schedule, if you’re in a field like anesthesiology where there’s no longitudinal care of patients. I was also in a department that was large enough to have the flexibility to allow me to be away from the hospital for those three months. Of course, Congress is a full-time job, so I now only see patients 10 days a year at a community hospital on the Eastern Shore, though I’m still on faculty at Johns Hopkins.
How does science get funded federally?
HARRIS: There are authorizing committees and an appropriations committee. The authorizing committees write bills that give authority to the appropriations committee to designate certain amounts of money to specific government agencies, programs, etc. Each authorizing committee has jurisdiction over a set of government agencies. The House Science Committee, for example, which I served on for my first two years here, has jurisdiction over NSF (National Science Foundation) and NASA. The House Ways and Means Committee oversees NIH.
The distribution of monies to different NIH institutes does come through the appropriations process, but with a lot of input from the director of NIH. Generally, the determination of research priorities is left up to the scientific community, which is how it should be.
So the Ways and Means Committee sets up the centers and institutes at NIH, and they authorize certain funding levels for a set number of years. The Appropriations Committee cannot give an institute more money than was requested by the Ways and Means Committee, the authorizing committee in this case. It can also choose to give less money, or none at all. Once an authorization bill has expired, the appropriations committee can still fund the agencies covered by that bill with a continuing resolution, but only under the funding levels and provisions of the old bill.
What is something scientists might not realize about science policy?
HARRIS: Politics is intrinsically frustrating for scientists, because in science, 2 plus 2 is always equal to 4. In a legislature, 2 plus 2 is equal to whatever a majority of the body says it is on any given day. Prioritization of national needs/funding is very different from the objectivity of scientific results. There will always be limited resources, so we will always need to prioritize.
Would you encourage others with a medical/scientific background to enter politics?
HARRIS: Absolutely. If you want to have a real effect on how the government interacts with the scientific or medical community, I don’t think there’s any greater way than to be part of a legislature. There is a real opportunity to make a difference. In my case, I’ve not only impacted the lives of many, many patients but also influenced the future of medical research.
-- Interviewed by Catherine Kolf
For more information:
Congressman Harris’ website