The staffing drive, launched just five months ago, will result in an estimated 10 percent increase in the FDA's work force. Holden said the new hires will provide critical expertise after years of losing valuable medical and scientific people who took industry jobs or went into retirement. The exodus came as the agency struggled to cope with a string of drug and food safety problems that damaged its reputation.
Independent observers said the staffing increase is only a first step, albeit a much needed one.
"This is really just bringing them back to where they were in earlier years," said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner now leading a lobbying effort for sustained increases in the agency's budget. "It restores losses that they have incurred, but they still have a long way to go to where they can make improvements."
The FDA's budget is about $2.2 billion a year, with some $1.7 billion coming from taxpayers and the rest from industry user fees. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who oversees the agency budget in the House, called the success of the hiring program "welcome news," but added, "It is critical that the next president requests a funding level for FDA that will maintain and increase personnel as part of a long-term effort to improve FDA's management."
FDA officials said about 1,000 of the new hires have already started, with another 158 due to report later this month. An additional 160 have accepted offers and are going through background checks. Of those already on the job, more than 850 are professionals, including chemists, biologists, pharmacologists, statisticians, medical officers, microbiologists and field inspectors.
Of the total 1,317 positions, 770 are new jobs and 547 are posts left vacant by people leaving the agency for other jobs or due to retirement.
Within the FDA, the biggest number of jobs will go to the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, which assesses new medications and monitors the safety of drugs on the market. That center will get 663 new staffers. The smaller food safety program will get just 104 - still a 10 percent increase. The FDA's enforcement branch, which has lost many field inspectors in recent years, will get 245 new staffers.
About 40 percent of the total number of positions are being funded with industry user fees, meaning those new hires will mainly be evaluating new drugs or medical devices and, in some cases, monitoring safety issues.
Certain positions, such as cancer specialists, were hard to fill. The FDA hired nine, but another 20 rejected offers. "They could not make the money they would be making on the outside if they came into public service," said Holden. The agency could offer as much as $275,000 a year, she said, but oncologists can make $400,000 annually in that endeavor.
Congress approved the hiring drive and the Bush administration gave the FDA special authority to make on-the-spot offers. The drive was launched in the spring, with a goal of hiring 1,300 staffers by Sept. 30.
The campaign shows that public service is still attractive for highly specialized professionals, said Arthur Levin, director of the Center for Medical Consumers in New York. But he cautioned that the FDA has a history of letting such gains slip away. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the agency hired food inspectors to guard against the threat of bio-terrorism. But then it gradually cut the program back. As a result, the FDA was caught flat-footed by outbreaks of foodborne illness.
"Cost-of-living increases don't ever seem to be part of the funding from Congress," said Levin. "It may be that they hire all these people now, but they can't afford them down the line."