Rockey looking to leave the NIH

Nov 03 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

It looks like Sally Rockey, Deputy Director in charge of NIH's Office of Extramural Research since 2005, is looking to depart the NIH.


show that she is on the short-list to become the next President of the University (system) of Nebraska. Other shortlist candidates are a state level commissioner of higher education, a State University President and a State University (system) chancellor.

In the US some State University systems (i.e., multiple campuses which act as semi-autonomous Universities) call their campus heads President and the System-wide leader the Chancellor whereas other systems reverse these titles. This job appears to be the system-wide leadership position. This explains why there are two system-level leaders in the hunt.

It also may influence your opinion on the appropriateness of someone who has been a research administrator her whole career being in the running for such a position. Obviously she is being looked at as some sort of Federal grant rainmaker/expert to upgrade the amount of money that enters the University of Nebraska system from the Federal government and possibly other sources. I cannot imagine why else such a person, with no related experience heading a University or University system would be on the shortlist otherwise.

The main point of this news can be summed up in this handy figure from Jimmy Margulies, New Jersey Record, who was commenting on a different topic. The point remains, however.
The NIH is a sinking ship. I suspect that the folks at NIH realize this and the ones who have opportunity to cash in on their authoritah! by finding a nice top level administrative gig at one of the supplicant Universities will do so. The have-not Universities which find themselves in the most difficulty obtaining NIH funding will be desperate to land a rain-maker and even the "have" Universities may see this as a good investment. Especially if you have an IC Deputy Director or better, you can argue that they have significant administrative experience within an organization not entirely unrelated to academics. It should be an easy sell for a search committee to make the argument for NIH insiders to be considered for University President positions, Deans of Research and the like.

Is it a smart move? Well yes, if you think that their will be some benefit to their insider status. If you think that the replacement figures and holdovers will take the calls of these NIH emigres and listen to the concerns of their new University.

UPDATE: This news account explains that an attempt to close a Nebraska open-records law was made when the previous President of the UN system resigned.

As the law stands now, candidates may be kept private until the search for a president is narrowed to a pool of at least four applicants, all of whom must be disclosed. The bill would have allowed search committees to keep confidential presidential, vice presidential and chancellor candidates until they’ve narrowed the pool to one finalist.

Proponents of the bill say a closed search would allow for a better pool of applicants, including those who may otherwise be hesitant to apply and jeopardize their current position by publicly seeking another one. Opponents say the current law allows for students, faculty, the general public and the media to meet, investigate and learn about the candidates.

Hadley introduced the bill on behalf of the University of Nebraska’s Board of Regents after President James Milliken announced last month that he would be leaving Nebraska to become chancellor of the City University of New York.

52 responses so far

  • louis says:

    you know what?. Well gone Ms Rockey! The scientific community is not loosing a rock star. So, as fas as I am concerned I hope UN gets and keeps her forever!.

  • dr24hours says:

    NIH is a sinking ship? How do you mean that exactly? Do you actually expect it to not exist in the forseeable future?

  • drugmonkey says:

    I do not think it will sink entirely, no. It is a hyperbolic metaphor of course. Wall Street didn't cease to be, considering the subject of the cartoon fwiw.

    Look, we don't really know. Perhaps she's being pushed out, maybe she has a sick relative, etc, etc.

    But a decent chunk of the betting money has to be on her deciding that the job is going to suck in the next few years, and that it is not going to get better in the forseeable future.

  • Yeah exactly. Neither the NIH or Wall Street are going anywhere, although I'm sure leaders from either can find more lucrative positions based on the (somewhat dubious) idea that they will still have some pull to benefit their new employers.

  • Established PI says:

    Perhaps there is a simpler explanation: that she sees an opportunity to do something interesting and different and is pursuing it. The chance to triple or quadruple her salary might be an added motivation. I don't see anything ominous in someone like Rockey looking at a new position.

  • Philapodia says:

    I imagine her current job sucks. I know I wouldn't want to be in her position. If she's at all concerned about the well-being of her constituents (ie us), she know that a lot of us are suffering and that she can't do much of anything about it. Must be frustrating. Much better to move to tornado alley and have a nice cushy President position.

  • eeke says:

    I agree with Established PI - looks like a good opportunity for her. I didn't see you making similar statements about Jeremy Berg at the time that he left the NIH. What makes Rockey special?

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    Interesting that they have publicized the short list (outside of the inner university circle). Three won't be offered/take the job. The upside is that the world knows they are on the market (but headhunters knew that already) and were ranked in the top four candidates. The downside is that they are lame ducks in their current roles. Is tweeting short lists a thing in the US of A?

  • kelly says:

    Come on!. Rockey got bored after these years explaining her statistical analysis on grant success. She might think her skills and NIH credentials could provide better opportunities to the Nebraska University community.

  • Dave says:

    I'm sure this is more about her personal finances than anything else. But if she does go, how do we get her to take Collins with her?

  • Datahound says:

    I have it on very good authority that Jeremy Berg did not leave NIH because he was looking to leave or trying to "cash in", but rather that his wife, a breast imaging researcher and clinician, was recruited to a position in Pittsburgh and Jeremy sought a position in the same city as the "trailing spouse".

  • kelly says:

    Maybe she manages to take collins as her personal secretary. That would work

  • eeke says:

    Datahound - I was pointing out that the monkey is speculating about Rockey's choices before she's had a chance to make a statement and before UN has even made a decision. It seems premature. I'm surprised that they made the shortlist public. I'm sorry, I meant no disrespect toward JB.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Is tweeting short lists a thing in the US of A?

    I also thought this unusual for just the reason you mention. Given that it is a public University system it is not impossible that some sort of so-called "sunshine law" (aka open government) is at work?

    I didn't see you making similar statements about Jeremy Berg at the time that he left the NIH.

    I did make statements about Director Berg, based on his stated reason for leaving. Also, of course, based on my understanding of the state of the NIH at the time. Times change.

    If she's at all concerned about the well-being of her constituents (ie us),

    I have not seen a lot of evidence for that.

  • Datahound says:

    eeke: No worries.

    I am surprised that the University of Nebraska would release the names of finalists. It puts the candidates in difficult positions with regard to their present positions. JB certainly guarded information about his job search carefully even though he did have to recuse himself for any decisions substantially affecting any institution with which he was in discussions.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am surprised that the University of Nebraska would release the names of finalists.

    Open Government laws. There was an attempt to close it, legislatively, for this specific search. See the update to the post.

  • Lady Scientist says:

    There could be any number of reasons for her decision to look for another job. Maybe it's the salary, maybe it's for personal reasons, maybe she isn't particularly fond of so much public bitching about her, etc. I don't see this as a bad sign. People move on for any number of reasons.

    Must be nice to have university prez as a potential job option....

  • Pinko Punko says:

    I do think it makes it much harder for institutions to sort of feel out candidates who are currently employed elsewhere. In this case I am not sure the benefit of the open records, though I generally am almost always in favor of such a thing.

    I think it doesn't mean much to read some narrative into this. It could be anything.

  • How on earth could someone like Rockey--whose only even remotely relevant administrative experience is running an inept think tank slash propaganda mill with no operational functionality at all--ever run a statewide university system??????

  • drugmonkey says:

    Haven't you ever heard of a decorative figurehead CPP? It could happen.

  • Dave says:

    What exactly does Rockey do at the NIH, aside from post half-arsed blogs about half-arsed internal NIH analyses?

  • Physician Scientist says:

    She was middle author on a scientific paper once:

    Change in levels of cyclic AMP and cyclic GMP during pregnancy and larval development of the tsetse fly, Glossina morsitans.
    Denlinger DL, Gnagey AL, Rockey SJ, Chaudhury MF, Fertel RH.
    Comp Biochem Physiol C. 1984;77(2):233-6.

  • Dude, there is no such thing as a "decorative figurehead" who is the president/chancellor of a university. University presidents actually have to run the goddamn motherfucker. That shittio just doesn't exist. Although maybe the halfwit unibrows of Nebraska will give it a shot! Although now this is reminding me, didn't Indiana or wherever appoint some fuckebagge right-wing non-academic scumbagge as the president of one of its public universities, Purdue or something???

  • Lady Scientist says:

    Of course, you all know that if she takes that job, she is likely leaving an opening for someone else at the NIH.... Any takers?

    Actually, CPP, DM is right on this one. The university president doesn't do much at one of my local institutions. Just gives speeches, attends benefits, delegates responsibilities to numerous vice presidents, and hires the provost who does the actual work of running the institution. So, the president is basically there for PR. Next thing you know, there will be photos circulating on the internet of SR boozing it up on spiked Kool-Aid with some greasy oil and gas tycoons. Sounds like a real blast and almost as exciting as getting a job in Oklahoma.

  • rxnm says:

    University upper admin in the non-ILAF world is full of failed politicians, CPP. They don't hack it in the big leagues, but in the small pond they have influence and fundraising ability. Yes, they suck at academic mission leadership, but no one gives a fuck about that anymore. It's about building a few new buildings and getting your US News ranking up by monkeying with enrollment stats and shit like that.

    But that's not the deal here...Rockey has no non-academic cache. For her, I don't see why any more explanation is required than her trading up massively on salary for perceived expertise/influence with landing federal dollars. The UN Medical Center in Omaha is in a massive growth phase

  • Philapodia says:

    On an unrelated note, McKnight responds to the power of social media and is delighted that his use of the term riffraff got so much attention:

  • E rook says:

    CPP, I thought the Same thing about Janet Napolitano & the UC. You have to look at it from the Trustees' perspectives. What can this person bring to the university system? I would say here: a network and connections, she has access (presumably) to a team who can run things and has an insiders' view of forces of institutions that affect the university's long term outlook. These people don't "run" the university, they maybe make broad policy directions and fire / hire people who do the running. They also need to put out PR fires.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Also water boarding the odd campus radical or six. Don't forget that bonus with Napolitano.

  • halcyon says:

    Of course, you all know that if she takes that job, she is likely leaving an opening for someone else at the NIH.... Any takers?

    Deputy Director Monkey has a nice ring to it.

  • Khat says:

    @CPP, You're thinking of Mitch Daniels -- Former Lilly lawyer (during a period of much corporate malfeasance -- think Zyprexa and Evista), head of OMB (2001-3), "famous" for his estimation of Iraqi war costs, two term governor of Indiana notable for many events, including: attempt to suppress the use of Howard Zinn's writings at the university level, leasing of the Indiana Toll road for 75 years (money almost completely spent during his terms), massive school voucher program, privatization of secondary education, "right to work" legislation, defund Planned Parenthood legislation, massively expensive debacle with IBM on computerizing FSSA payments, remove collective bargaining rights from state employees, a sorry state of secondary education (Google Tony Bennett and "rigged grade" for a start), several instances of fraud at the Economic Development Corporation, >$500M in accounting irregularities with tax receipts, a likely unethical/illegal relationship with massive overruns on the Edwardsport electrical generation plant, ....

    and finally....

    immediately upon leaving office, appointment as president of Purdue, by its board of ten trustees, eight of whom he had appointed.

  • datahound says:

    Dave: The Deputy Director for Extramural Research is the head of OER (the Office of Extramural Research). This office is responsible for all aspects of extramural research including grant policies, oversight of peer review, and so on. OER has 600 or more employees. One can have one's own opinion about Sally Rockey but her position is a big job that requires considerable management and leadership skills.

    CPP: Purdue hired Mitch Daniels, the former Governor of Indiana and head of OMB under GWB as President. While he has been controversial in some ways, he has kept tuition flat for several years and signed a first-of-its-kind deal with Amazon to give Purdue students access to textbooks at reduced rates. See

  • becca says:

    "But a decent chunk of the betting money has to be on her deciding that the job is going to suck in the next few years, and that it is not going to get better in the forseeable future."
    Dude, a decent chunk of the betting money has to be on her deciding that the betting money MATTERS. In a capitalistic society, when you leave one well paid job for another better paid job, it's called a promotion. Irrespective of whether you, personally, as Drugmonkey think Rockey's current job is more interesting or her prospective job is more interesting. Step away from the tea leaves and crystal ball, and go back to Pubmed stalking your study section.

    "University presidents actually have to run the goddamn motherfucker. " False, at least in some university systems. University presidents have to raise money for the goddamn motherfucker. Fundraising is how they justify their existence.

  • E rook says:

    Student A: "What does a chancellor actually DO?"
    B: "She 'chancells.'"
    A: "what is 'chancelling'?"
    B: "it's like juggling shiny objects with one hand and moving money around with the other."

  • louis says:

    with the disastrously sweeping republican's victory Rockey will have it. good luck and good night Nebraska University!

  • dsks says:

    Hell, we could use a bit more female representation among college prez folk, good luck to her I hope it works out.

  • bsci says:

    Echoing what others said here, Jeremy Berg announced his departure and reasoning at the same time. If the fact that he was searching came out before the reason he was searching, would you have written a similar speculative post? For all you know, Dr. Rockey also has clear personal reasons for looking for other jobs or for jobs in a specific geographic location.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Dunno. Why is this important?

  • eeke says:

    DM - what troubles is me is that the tone of your post, and those of other commenters here seem to challenge Sally Rockey's credentials. You suggest she would be "decorative figurehead". CPP maintains that they need someone "who can actually run the goddamn motherfucker." Your post about JB, in contrast, is a gushing tribute to someone who has "..been a proponent of communicating grant review outcome data via blog entries.." Of which SR has also done. Not that I have anything against gushing over JB. It's that everything you've said here about SR reeks of the misogyny in science that you have so often written about. I get the sense that neither you nor CPP can stand the fact that SR, a woman, would be considered for such a high ranking position and need to bring her down. It saddens me to have to point this out - maybe it's an unconscious thing on your part. But it needs to stop.

    That's why it's important.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It's that everything you've said here about SR reeks of the misogyny in science that you have so often written about.

    Rockey has no credentials that match up to the other short listers in terms of specificity for the job. Rockey may or may not be capable from an organizational standpoint but that was CPP's crack, not mine.

    Berg's post-NIH job is *much* more consistent with his CV at the time. much more of an expected value, given his employment record up to that point in time.

    Your better question, I suppose, would be why I didn't complain about Reynard Kington leaving to head up Grinnell College. Can't remember having an opinion on that, though, since we were mostly talking about him in the context of the Ginther report he co-authored.

    I get the sense that neither you nor CPP can stand the fact that SR, a woman, would be considered for such a high ranking position and need to bring her down.

    I think you bring that into the discussion all on your own hook. I will say this. I have been greatly dismayed by certain pronouncements she has made that exhibit what I think is almost inconceivable ignorance about the real functioning of the system she has overseen. I recently saw her give a talk on the whole biomedical research workforce thing that likewise disappointed. So no, I am not particularly impressed with her capabilities from that angle. Be that as it may, I have no ability to "bring her down" as if I had any interest in doing so.

    That's why it's important.

    thanks for making your concerns clear.

  • damit says:

    The question for me is how she ever even made the cut.

    The blog had some value, I suppose, as it showed how utterly clueless she was about the true situation with NIH extramural funding, and spotlighted the fact that she never should have been in that role.

    Good move for her but God help Nebraska.

  • Grumble says:

    "But a decent chunk of the betting money has to be on her deciding that the job is going to suck in the next few years, and that it is not going to get better in the forseeable future."

    Government salary cap = $181k

    Chancellor of large university system pay = $500k+

    Cost of living in DC/Maryland: $181k/year

    Cost of living in Nebraska: $0.50/year*

    'Nuff said.

    *Chancellor-types often get free housing and many free meals, and probably lots of free transportation as well.

  • louis says:

    what about new clothes and hairdresser?

  • leftthebench says:

    louis – Would you have asked the same question if SR were a man?

  • anonymous postdoc (shrewshrew) says:

    Shut up, louis. Or are you just demonstrating for the whole class what overt misogyny looks like? In which case well done.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Several confusions here

    1. The president/Chancellor of a university system is NOT the president/Chancellor of a university. Big difference

    2. For positions like this there is always the visit, at which time the names are known.

  • louis says:

    You shut up, illustrious anonymous postdoc. Mentioning new clothes and hairdresser is not overt misogyny. Have you ever watched discussions around presidential elections time making predictions on male candidates demeanor, appearance (tie, no tie, suits, etc), as to have greater impact on viewers?. Indeed, your hypersensitivity might just be strategic to avoid discussion on issues of competence and authentic commitment for a critically important job.
    This is not about misogyny. You might be about fake anti-misogyny.

  • louis says:

    BTW, let me remind you that competence and authentic commitment is unisex. So, don't deviate the argument.

  • anonymous postdoc (shrewshrew) says:

    Cool. Louis, you deviated from the discussion of her qualifications in your second comment by suggesting that she should spend money on "new clothes and a hairdresser", apparently fixing some flaw in presentation she has. Or are "competence and authentic commitment" something a person can fix with a haircut?

    I am not sure why you think I am employing some kind of strategy to avoid discussing Rockey's qualifications. I would argue that her mismanagement of the NIH workforce during a time of profound budget crisis might be up for consideration, as it reflects her abilities as a high-level administrator. That is a qualification and I am happy to discuss it.

    On the other hand, her appearance, which is professional but probably doesn't make your dick hard, is not a qualification. Do you see the difference? Nobody cares about your dick.

    Finally, I was amused by your attempt to argue from authority, by using sarcasm to suggest that a postdoc is not illustrious enough to call you on your sexist bullshit. I am not to be intimidated.

  • louis says:


    You're making up or having "psyche reading" abilities ( very scientific)

    "she should spend money on "new clothes and a hairdresser". You said it. I did not

    Previous commenter talked about living expenses in different cities and I assume that if one has housing, meals and transportation covered there is just personal care left Nothing to do with her looks. Who cares?.

    Anyway, I have no interest in having an argument with you. Have a great day and better future.

  • becca says:

    When women are free to fail as badly as men, that's when the true progress of feminism will be evident.

    It's not misogynistic to criticize Rockey's specific failings. It is foolish to assume you can criticize her in very generic, non specific terms that simply paint her as utterly failing at life, and presume you will not perpetuate misogyny.

  • louis says:

    I agree with the poster who said that a University President is not a decorative figure. I have not come across such a “decorative” President in my academic life.
    I think that the head of a University which, by definition, is an academic institution rooted in its social context, needs to have COMPETENCE, excel in LEADERSHIP capabilities and (why not) possess the CHARISMA that irradiates from the previous two. Competence is more often than not the result of real academic experience (research, teaching and involvement in administrative roles). Excelling in Leadership is a qualitative feature that is not readily attested by the number of individuals a potential candidate has supervised in his/her professional experience or the number of millions of dollars he/she might have overseen. Or the number of talks/lectures to the public given by a candidate. It is much more than that.

    I think that (as of today) Dr Rockey doesn’t meet the criteria. Just my personal opinion.

  • k elliott says:

    A colleague just brought to my attention Linkedin Rockey’s “selfie”. And reading it I thought: Has Sally really learned the essentials of a Biosketch after all these years at NIH?. It all sounds good until you get to

    Languages: Spanish MARGINALLY

    What’s the point Sally?. When it comes to languages, either you do master a language or you don’t. If you don’t, just omit it. And if you want your professional credentials to look appealing to the Spanish community, given that you are in a government setting, you could just choose

    Interests: or Hobbies: SPANISHHHHH.

    What would you think if a physicist, specialized in particle physics, wrote in her Resume/CV/ Biosketch

    Techniques: Tissue Culture MARGINALLY

    It doesn’t make sense Sally, or does it? We Americans don’t have (precisely) a flair for languages. So, virtually nobody will miss a blank in your languages skill. But yes, most people will look at the relevance of the information you provide about yourself.

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