Two presidential advisory bodies have urged President Reagan to keep Dr. Vincent DeVita Jr. in charge of the billion-dollar-a-year federal war against cancer, despite his clash with some senators over his leadership of the National Cancer Institute.
The advisory groups are the presidentially appointed National Cancer Advisory Board -- which consists mainly of leading scientists who help supervise this largest single unit of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda -- and the even more highly placed three-man President's Cancer Panel, created by Congress when it launched the anti-cancer crusade in 1971.
According to a source, the White House last month approved reappointment of DeVita, who serves at the president's wish, at the same time it approved reappointment of Dr. Donald Fredrickson (who, nonetheless, resigned as NIH director Friday for "personal" reasons).
But no White House action has been announced, and DeVita early this month underwent two hours of battering questioning before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.
Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), joined by Sens. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), accused him of not cracking down on scientists and laboratories when they misspend federal funds. In a closing statement, Hawkins gave DeVita 90 days to show progress.
An aide to Hatch said that the senator was not recommending that DeVita be replaced "at the time."
The National Cancer Advisory Board told the president that most of the institute's management problems took place before DeVita became director last year.
"In his knowledge of the [institute] and his management expertise . . . Dr. DeVita is second to no one," and if he is not retained, the loss of his skill and inevitable delays "would cause irreparable damage to the national cancer program," the board said.
All 15 available members of the 18-member body signed the statement to Reagan, according to the board's chairman, Dr. Henry Pito, head of the University of Wisconsin's McCardle Cancer Research Center.
The members of the President's Cancer Panel, Drs. Joshua Lederberg, president of Rockefeller University, Harold Amos of Harvard and Bernard Fisher of Pittsburgh University, would not disclose the text of their wire to Reagan. But Amos said, "We're really pretty upset," adding, "we'd like to have a much clearer presentation of the truth" than the Senate hearing produced.
The hostile Senate questioning concentrated on DeVita's role in giving a new, $910,000 basic research grant, one not dealing with patients, to Dr. Marc J. Straus, who had just been forced to resign from Boston University for allegedly falsifying patient-treatment results. This happened shortly after DeVita became acting director for six months before becoming permanent director in January, 1980.
Straus, now at New York Medical College in Valhalla, has filed a $33 million suit in U.S. District Court in Boston, charging five of his former hospital colleagues with conspiring to discredit his work.
In interviews this month, however, several scientists agreed with Hatch that it was a mistake to give $910,000 to a scientist to gather new facts, when that scientist was under accusation of making up data.
But a number said DeVita is the best director of five who have headed the institute in the 10 years in which its budget has been pumped up nearly fivefold by an eager Congress, from $230 million a year to $1 billion.