Dr. Anthony Fauci and other exceptional doctors discuss public service
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Dr. Anthony Fauci and other exceptional doctors discuss public service

October 7, 2020 | Updated on May 17, 2022

At a virtual afternoon panel Monday afternoon, Dr. Anthony Fauci related a lesson he learned in the 1980s about how to discuss scientific findings on health with a U.S. president.  

Fauci was headed to the White House to brief President Ronald Reagan for the first time, when a friend advised him that telling the truth was vital but could have consequences. The advice? “Tell yourself this might be the last time you walk into that place because you might have to say something that people don’t like to hear, and they won’t ask you back,” Fauci said.   

“I had the choice of being on the right side of the truth or being asked back,” recalled Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I chose the former.”  

Fauci’s comments came during a special Partnership event on Monday, Oct. 5, during which he was joined on a virtual panel by two other exceptional medical professionals who serve the public: Dr. Beth Ripley, a radiologist from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.  

The panel was moderated by Margaret Talev, Axios’ editor for White House and politics. 

Both Fauci and Ripley are recipients of the 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, or Sammies—Fauci as Federal Employee of the Year, and Ripley as winner of a medal in the Science and Environment category.  

The event was one of several recognizing the accomplishments of people in government. “At the Partnership, we believe that the way we get good government is by publicly recognizing achievements by federal workers. There are no finer people than the ones we’re hearing from today,” said Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and CEO, in introducing the panel.  

Courage and integrity in government service 

Fauci’s story about his visit to the White House came after Talev asked him how doctors who are not as established as he is could present uncomfortable scientific facts and recommendations based on hard data, and what he’d tell people who are early in their careers. 

“There was a time in my life when I wasn’t as established as I am now,” Fauci responded. “That’s when I started doing things that got me where I am now.” And imparting the facts was part of that.  

Using technology to advance medical care 

Ripley discussed 3D printing, which she brought to the Veterans Health Administration. “It allows for just-in-time solutions to solve problems,” she said. “It allows you to make anything you can imagine,” she said, including models of patients’ actual organs and tissues.   

She also used the 3D printing network in the fight against the coronavirus, creating about a dozen designs for personal protective equipment to help end the shortage of PPE for front-line health care workers. 

“We ended up spinning out a surgical mask in 10 days,” she said. “The ability to take a concept from your mind and put it into reality is incredible, and that’s the magic of 3D printing.”  

Lessons from the pandemic 

In discussing NIH’s response to COVID-19, Collins said he was amazed at how quickly the NIH has reached the final stages of developing a vaccine.  

“We came together, organized our trial network, had more than 100 people working constantly, and said to ourselves, ‘We haven’t done it this way before, but let’s just do it.’”  

The NIH will continue to employ many of its new work practices and strategies after the pandemic ends, he said. “We won’t lose this model post-pandemic because it has been so helpful,” he added.  

Improving the human condition: the case for an effective government 

Audience questions for the panel touched on a range of topics about public service, from how the nation can engage young children in science to how the U.S. partners with foreign governments to tackle global challenges. 

One questioner asked Collins, “how can you rebuild public trust in government?” 

He cited the Partnership’s work in that arena, and the fact that federal employees are dedicated to the people they serve. Most federal employees do what they do because “they believe in their efforts,” Collins said. “They want to contribute, and they want to have a life that has meaning. People are really trying to do the right thing to improve the human condition.” 

The 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals virtual gala  

The panel discussion set the stage for the 2020 Service to America Medals virtual gala, which aired the night of October 5 and featured personal messages from former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Also making appearances were Bono, Kristen Bell, Stephen Colbert, Yo-Yo Ma, Matthew McConaughey, Sloane Stephens and many more. Watch the video below or visit the Sammies website for more information.  

Read more about the work of federal medical professionals on our blog in Stories of Service: Meet the biologist helping his agency’s response to COVID-19 and Stories of Service: How the CDC protects health care workers who are treating coronavirus patients.