This is no longer your father's NIH," Bernadine Healy likes to boast. It's a rare understatement. In just 21 months on the job, the first woman to head the National Institutes of Health sent shock waves through the $10 billion-a-year federal agency that sets the country's biomedical research agenda. Brainy and brash, the 48-year-old New York City-born cardiologist has prescribed what many consider strong medicine: a sweeping plan to reform the way scientific research is funded—and at its core a focus on previously neglected women's health problems. "Isn't it inexcusable," she asks, "that we can't give women an answer about whether hormone therapy protects against osteoporosis because the research has not been done?"
Now it will be. As the year drew to a close, the first grants were awarded under the NIH Women's Health Initiative, a $625 million project designed to close the "vast knowledge gap," as Healy puts it. The 15-year study of 160,000 women over 50 is designed to evaluate preventive approaches to cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis in what Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan called "a project that is both unprecedented and overdue."
It remains to be seen whether Healy will be around to act as shepherd. Though the Bush appointee has been lobbying to keep the position that has made her a commuter mom—two young daughters remain in Cleveland with her second husband, heart surgeon Floyd Loop—Healy is not without critics. "One thing I've learned in Washington is if you make a decision, you are going to be criticized," she says. "I am willing to go out on a limb, shake the tree and take a few bruises."
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