UPDATE 2-US FDA to add 1,300 staff in big expansion

(Adds lawmaker comment)

WASHINGTON, April 30 (Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration aims to hire more than 1,300 biologists, chemists, pharmacologists and other staff members by October as part of a major expansion, the agency said on Wednesday.

The hiring effort, first reported by Reuters, comes as the agency is under growing pressure from Congress to improve operations and existing staff is stretched thin.

The new hires will add to the current FDA work force of more than 10,000 employees who regulate food, drugs and other products that account for a quarter of U.S. consumer spending.

Some 770 of the jobs are new posts funded mainly by higher industry fees authorized last year in a broad FDA law meant to bolster drug safety oversight and other areas.

Another 547 additional hires will fill current vacancies, an FDA statement said.

Many of the new employees will work in the area of drug reviews and post-approval monitoring of side effects, said Kimberly Holden, assistant commissioner for operations.

Others will work on food and import safety and inspections.

Finding candidates for all of the jobs could pose a challenge. Recruiting and retention of specialized scientists were highlighted as problems by a panel of the FDA’s science board in a critical report last year.

“We do expect some hurdles ... We are competing with industry all the time for talent,” Holden said.

Industry jobs pay more, while academic work offers flexibility and relative freedom from the spotlight shined by Congress and others.

The FDA comes under attack whenever a drug safety controversy erupts. Critics and supporters agree agency staffers are pushed to the limit with too little money and a heap of responsibilities.

That climate contributes to a turnover rate in key scientific areas -- twice as high as other government agencies, said Gail Cassell, an Eli Lilly and Co LLY.N vice president who chaired the science board panel review of FDA.

“People are a lot more attuned to the fact that the environment must be improved,” she said.

Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said working for the agency offers rewards that she hopes will attract good candidates.

“It’s fascinating. It’s challenging intellectually. There’s the intersection of law and science, medicine and policy ... You have a tremendous opportunity to make a huge difference,” said Woodcock, a 20-year FDA veteran.

One step that should speed hiring is “direct-hire” authority, which cuts the normal hiring process to a few weeks from a few months, Holden said.

The FDA hopes to fill the jobs by the Sept. 30 end of the 2008 fiscal year, she said. More staff will be added in future years.

The hiring of additional staff is critical to drugmakers, said Alan Goldhammer, a deputy vice president for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

The FDA’s “ability to do things in a timely manner is predicated on having the necessary staff in place,” he said.

Congress may push for even more FDA employees due to concerns about lax oversight of imported food and drugs.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell said the FDA had “repeatedly and inexplicably refused to ask for funding and staffing increases” to meet its needs.

The Michigan Democrat has proposed legislation to generate more funding for inspections in China and other nations.

Woodcock’s advice to potential hires? “You have to be thick-skinned. You have to realize that you are not going to make everybody happy all the time,” she said. (Reporting by Lisa Richwine; editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Tim Dobbyn)