Zerhouni to retire, let's all dance the Director Shuffle

Sep 24 2008 Published by under NIH

Zerhouni has announced he will retire as the Director of the NIH. (h/t: Sci Am blog):

Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., the director of the National Institutes of Health, today announced his plans to step down at the end of October 2008 to pursue writing projects and explore other professional opportunities.

Unsurprising since this is a political appointment and all. You did know that, right? More importantly and probably more concerning will be the dance of the IC Directors.
UPDATE: see writedit's take.


The directors of the NIH Institutes and Centers are slightly less political in nature but there are still allegiances. And the highly activist Directors can have immediate impact on what research grants get funded, etc. So the scientists who are funded by an IC which has a Director resign may want to pay some attention. A long interval of an Acting Director can, conversely, maintain status quo on the funding side but may seriously side-line Congressional advocacy for the IC's mission.
Ting-Kai (TK) Li already announced he will step down

Ting-Kai Li, M.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) since November 2002, announced today that he will step down from his post and retire from Federal service, effective October 31, 2008. Kenneth R. Warren, Ph.D., the NIAAA Deputy Director since February 2008, will serve as Acting Director of the Institute while a search for a new Director is initiated.
"I leave NIAAA/NIH feeling that my tenure has resulted in greater transparency, accountability, trust, and stability of funding for alcohol research. Research supported by NIAAA in the past 5 years has reframed our understanding of alcohol dependence in several ways by demonstrating that it is a developmental disorder that has its roots in childhood and adolescence. While initiation of drinking is largely influenced by peer and family environmental factors, the transition to habitual and dependent drinking is strongly influenced by genetic factors. This has important prevention and treatment implications." as Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Okay, with my usual disclaimers in mind, who should take over the helm of the NIH and/or the NIAAA?
I have no opinion on the NIH job. It is just so political and it traditionally goes to an MD, no? And my traditional areas of interest, the brain sciences, just don't seem to fit with a general NIH-wide director so I'd hesitate to nominate any neuroscientist types.
In terms of NIAAA I think the alcohol field would do well to think of Nora Volkow, the current NIDA director. She has a rather vibrant and colorful personality that I think has gone down very well in terms of getting attention paid to NIDA's interests. It is all very well and good to slip a highly respected member of the attached scientific community into the Director's chair, but let us remember that the job is fundraising. Both internally at the NIH and with Congress, the mission of an IC director is to keep the money flowing in the direction of his or her Institute and his or her scientific domains. That means one wishes for a person who can present the health issues and the scientific issues in a way that Congresscritters can understand. In a way that captures their divided attention. Dynamic personalities are key for this purpose and in fact trump the most elite scientific credentials.

27 responses so far

  • pinus says:

    I am really curious to see who NIAAA brings in for director. The fact that most directors are MD's rather than PhD's limits the field a bit...there are a few people I can think of who would be great.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    there are a few people I can think of who would be great.
    such as?????
    Do we start with the INIA and Alcohol Research Center grantees, for example?
    http://www.iniastress.org/investigators.html
    http://www.scripps.edu/cnad/inia/structure.html
    heck that's pretty much everyone right there isn't it?

  • Research!America responds to the news of the resignation of National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias Zerhouni, MD:
    The Honorable John Edward Porter, Research!America chair and former Illinois Congressman, said, "Our country owes Elias Zerhouni a tremendous debt of gratitude for his outstanding public service. He has guided NIH through its most difficult period-six years of stagnant budgets and challenges to the independence of science.
    Read the rest at http://www.researchamerica.org/release_08sept24_zerhouni.

  • pinus says:

    I could Adron Harris or Bob Hitzeman doing really well as director. Both are great scientists, and seem like they would be able to 'fundraise' well. Although, they lack the MD that seems essential for this position.

  • neurolover says:

    clearly, there's going to be an acting director until next year, and who gets appointed after then is going to depend on who wins the election.
    Stepping down in October suggests a concrete plan on Zerhouni's part. I think he's going to quickly show up as the head of some institute or pharma or biotech.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Harris looks like a kindly gent
    http://www.utexas.edu/neuroscience/Neurobiology/AdronHarris/index.html
    Hitzemann, tweedy prof
    http://www.ohsu.edu/behneuro/about/robertHitzemann.htm
    not looking very clinical although i see Harris is associated with a VA perhaps?
    What about the translational angle? In NIDA land they are breast-beating quite a bit about treatment and prior lack of success. Alcohol same thing, I would think? How about the large-scale clinical trials folks? anyone there?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Intriguing. What's your deal with the H names though?
    and you have any women for us to consider? 🙂

  • neurowoman says:

    minor question, but if these are political appointments (i.e., new people will be appointed in January), why the stepping down in October? won't the NIH/IC be directorless until the new administration?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    At the IC level it is common for the #2 to be made Acting Director. At the NIH level, I forget exactly but didn't they tap an existing Institute director to Acting Direct the NIH itself last time?

  • pinus says:

    I will only suggest H named men. However, for women suggestions, I can venture to E...Cindy Ehlers..she is really great, very diverse research program.
    http://www.scripps.edu/mind/ehlers/cindy.html

  • While y'all are taking bets, I'd like to put my money on NHLBI director, Dr Elizabeth Nabel - an outstanding translational cardiologist with an excellent academic pedigree. I saw her give a very passionate talk to MD fellows in their research years and have been extremely impressed with her since. Although I'm a cancer guy, I still have to admit that CV disease is *the* number one killer in the US and is only going to get worse now that the $700 billion bailout will have us eating McDonald's even more often.
    Dr Nabel also has this hack, tagalong captive spouse who studies Ebola or some such so the family is already deeply committed to NIH intramural.

  • pinus says:

    my suggestions were for niaaa
    for NIH chief...who knows!

  • neurolover says:

    I suggest Huda Zoghbi (can she kind of count as an "H")
    (Obama is spending his time reading drugmonkey, right 🙂

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I should have kept the NIH Director and the NIAAA Director in separate threads I suspect.
    anyway, yes, Nabel looks like the type of person. as I was saying though, the politics. clearly you have to know high level people.
    according to Wired:

    Obama announced his science platform earlier this month in response to questions posed by ScienceDebate2008, a nonpartisan political education group. In response to a Wired Science follow-up, the campaign identified five people who helped draft Obama's statement: Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate and former head of the National Institutes of Health; Gilbert Ommen, a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Peter Agre, a Nobel laureate and ardent critic of the Bush administration; NASA researcher Donald Lamb; and Stanford University plant biologist Sharon Long.

    Republican candidate John McCain responded to the ScienceDebate2008 questions on Monday, but his campaign ignored multiple requests for the identity of its science advisors.

    In an Obama admin we might expect Varmus to have a tremendous amount to say about who is the next NIH director, don't you think?

  • writedit says:

    Sciencedebate 2008:
    13. Research. For many years, Congress has recognized the importance of science and engineering research to realizing our national goals. Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets?
    Obama: Federally supported basic research, aimed at understanding many features of nature� from the size of the universe to subatomic particles, from the chemical reactions that support a living cell to interactions that sustain ecosystems�has been an essential feature of American life for over fifty years. While the outcomes of specific projects are never predictable, basic research has been a reliable source of new knowledge that has fueled important developments in fields ranging from telecommunications to medicine, yielding remarkable rates of economic return and ensuring American leadership in industry, military power, and higher education. I believe that continued investment in fundamental research is essential for ensuring healthier lives, better sources of energy, superior military capacity, and high-wage jobs for our nation�s future.
    Yet, today, we are clearly under-investing in research across the spectrum of scientific and engineering disciplines. Federal support for the physical sciences and engineering has been declining as a fraction of GDP for decades, and, after a period of growth of the life sciences, the NIH budget has been steadily losing buying power for the past six years. As a result, our science agencies are often able to support no more than one in ten proposals that they receive, arresting the careers of our young scientists and blocking our ability to pursue many remarkable recent advances. Furthermore, in this environment, scientists are less likely to pursue the risky research that may lead to the most important breakthroughs. Finally, we are reducing support for science at a time when many other nations are increasing it, a situation that already threatens our leadership in many critical areas of science.
    This situation is unacceptable. As president, I will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade.
    Sustained and predictable increases in research funding will allow the United States to accomplish a great deal. First, we can expand the frontiers of human knowledge. Second, we can provide greater support for high-risk, high-return research and for young scientists at the beginning of their careers. Third, we can harness science and technology to address the �grand challenges� of the 21st century: energy, health, food and water, national security, information technology, and manufacturing capacity.
    McCain: With spending constraints, it will be more important than ever to ensure we are maximizing our investments in basic research and minimizing the bureaucratic requirements that eat away at the money designed for funding scientists and science. Basic research serves as the foundation for many new discoveries and represents a critical investment for the future of the country and the innovations that drive our economy and protect our people. I have supported significant increases in basic research at the National Science Foundation. I also called for a plan developed by our top scientists on how the funding should be utilized. We must ensure that our research is addressing our national needs and taking advantage of new areas of opportunities and that the results of this research can enter the marketplace. We must also ensure that basic research money is allocated to the best science based on quality and peer review, not politics and earmarks.
    I am committed to reinvigorating America�s commitment to basic research, and will ensure my administration funds research activities accordingly. I have supported increased funding at DOE, NSF, and NIH for years and will continue to do so. I will continue my commitment to ensure that the funding is properly managed and that the nation's research needs are adequately addressed.

  • CC says:

    I credit Zerhouni with spurring me to participate in life sciences blogs. I'd ignored them in favor of the chemists until his article in Science, where he observed that the doubling of the NIH budget had led to a doubling of grant applicants which no one could have possibly foreseen and so clearly we needed another doubling of the budget, so enraged me that I went around venting on every biology outlet I could find.
    My blood still boils thinking about it. Good riddance. Things seemed to run well under Varmus, if memory serves correctly, so hopefully his input will be productive.
    This situation is unacceptable. As president, I will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade.
    Or, maybe not.
    As for Elizabeth Nabel, I have no idea about her administrative or political skills, but her jumping all over dead-end gene therapy projects doesn't inspire so much confidence. I'm biased against anyone who says "from bench to bedside" though.

  • neurlover says:

    "I'm biased against anyone who says "from bench to bedside" though"
    I'm not, 'cause of the development of AIDS treatment. I've said this before to others, but I was so wary of the "bench to bedside" idea that I thought that disease was going to end with the death of all the vulnerable groups, no treatment. But, they did it, those AIDS researchers.
    I am not one of them (these people who did something I didn't think they could do), and I don't know a lot about how it was done, and I'm not foolish enough to think the model will work for every disease that we have no treatment for. But, I am an amazed outsider, in awe of what they did. In a finite amount of time, they actually brought the basic science from the bench to the bedside, and they saved lives.

  • juniorprof says:

    I would like to propose something a bit different. The next NIH director should be someone with first hand knowledge of the economic impact of R&D expenditures and a world-wide view of our current position in health and basic biology research. This person needs to understand how and why our position is slipping and has to be able to communicate the risk of reverse brain-drain and decreasing funding for the economy as a whole. Another high flying MD administrator type will just not do this time. Of course, I have no idea who this person might be.

  • CC says:

    I was so wary of the "bench to bedside" idea...
    To clarify, my objection is to the cliche, not the concept. The proportion of effort to put into translational research and how it should be structured are for wider heads than mine. And I agree with you that the people who can carry it off are to be greatly admired.
    The next NIH director should be someone with first hand knowledge of the economic impact of R&D expenditures and a world-wide view of our current position in health and basic biology research. This person needs to understand how and why our position is slipping and has to be able to communicate the risk of reverse brain-drain and decreasing funding for the economy as a whole.
    Perhaps, but a lot of scientists might not be happy with an honest assessment of what their ROI to society is (assuming such a thing were even possible). That's the problem with that line of argument: researchers love to promise bottom-line benefits if they were only given more money but they're outraged whenever they're asked to back any of it up with facts.
    Clearly a) the US economy depends on a flourishing academic R&D system and b) we don't have that right now, but it's very difficult to say anything more detailed than that and most scientists probably would prefer it that way.

  • juniorprof says:

    Clearly a) the US economy depends on a flourishing academic R&D system and b) we don't have that right now, but it's very difficult to say anything more detailed than that and most scientists probably would prefer it that way.
    I'm not sure the current economy has much dependence on academic R&D; however, it is certainly a potential pathway to long-term enhanced flourishment and stability. But you have to be able to make the long-view argument more effectively.
    but a lot of scientists might not be happy with an honest assessment of what their ROI to society is (assuming such a thing were even possible).
    No individual R01 can make any such argument. Its the big picture that must be the focus.

  • Becca says:

    "Fund Research! Give Us Money! Get long-term enhanced flurishment and stability!"
    Hmmmm. Not quite as catchy as "Fund Research! Give Us Money! Get AIDS Cures!"
    Although the verbal flare of "flurishment" may partially compensate.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    revere suggests:

    His plans to "devote time to writing" and the timing of the announcement after the start of the academic year suggest he wasn't able to secure a top level academic position.

    ouch.

  • Hahahahaha it doesn't matter. You can appoint a damn SIV-infected monkey for all the good it will do in funding grants from Uncle Sam's pocket lint.
    And thanks to Wall Street's implosion, not only is Sam broke but our beloved uncle Howie (HHMI) and other private agencies will likely take a hit as well. Yay capitalism.
    That said, I think Zoghbi would be awesome.

  • CC says:

    His plans to "devote time to writing" and the timing of the announcement after the start of the academic year suggest he wasn't able to secure a top level academic position.
    He should start a blog! Or at least comment on them. ("dear sciencewoman, the place where I'm interviewing scheduled a beer hour after my job talk but i don't drink beer. should I tell them that they're a bunch of stupid hicks and that I don't want their job?")
    In fact, though, I don't think Zerhouni gets to say "Sorry, Dubya, but I can't finish out my term because I need to be on campus in September to teach premed biology."

  • microfool says:

    For the new NIH director, why not another recently retired institute director who is writing a book on personalized medicine?
    For NIAAA, why would Volkow move to an institute with half the budget of her current position? Certainly, NIAAA has an important mission, but she is an amazing leader, and if anything, should be directing larger initiatives and budgets.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I didn't say NIAAA should get Volkow, rather that they should get someone with similar attributes.

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