Harold Varmus is stepping down from the NCI Director position

Mar 04 2015 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism

His letter to the NCI community is here.

Finally, when I return to New York City full time on April 1st, I will establish a modestly sized research laboratory in the Meyer Cancer Center at the Weill-Cornell Medical College...

Harold Varmus is 75 years old. I will be very fascinated to see if his idea of "modestly sized" accords in even the slightest with what I think of as a modest laboratory operation.

UPDATE 03/06/2015: In case there was even the slightest doubt, Jocelyn Kaiser quoted Varmus as follows:

At 75, he plans to move his small lung cancer biology lab at NIH to New York City and expand its staff. Although Cornell is giving him startup funds, he expects to apply for grants. At NIH, his lab “just got reviewed and I did well,” Varmus says. “I don’t believe in making arithmetic judgments,” he adds. “I should be judged by what I do.” And in the future, he adds, “If things aren’t going well, I’ll quit.”

Grants. Plural. "I should be judged by what I do". aaaand or course judged by who you are and what you have done in the past. I can't imagine that his applications will be treated with anything other than kid gloves at study section, can you?

42 responses so far

  • That's a decent song, but the point of it has nothing to do with your poste.

  • Philapodia says:

    I wonder what kind of start-up package he'll have and if he'll have to wait long to go up for tenure. I assume that polishing your Nobel in front of the Dean is probably an effective strategy for getting what you want.

  • mytchondria says:

    Dear CPP,
    He's saying that Varmus says he understands the problems of scientists but will go try to set up a new empire. He's 75. He needs to retire. And find someone who wants to have him chat science with them. Normal people in normal professions retire. He can continue to mentor, share thoughts and publish to participate in the scientific community in anyway that doesn't draw away resources in the toughest funding climate, oh, ever.
    Meghan Trainor, is saying 'your lips are moving' because the person she is singing about is a liar. So there are parallels. This form of writing is referred to has having "subtext with pop culture references". All the kids are doing it these days.
    And The Grateful Dead won't be getting back together. I'm sorry....I know this is a lot of information at once.

  • Emaderton3 says:

    In his email, he noted two things that are of relevance to many of the recent posts on here. First, NCI has set up an outstanding investigator award that is seven years in length. Two, NCI is going to work on a plan to potentially fund staff scientists.

  • CD0 says:

    Harold Varmus made seminal contributions to science in the past and probably was a great administrator in his first phase as NIH director. But his stint as NCI director has been not very successful and I am not sorry to see him leaving.

    What he cites as accomplishments are some of the most controversial actions that were later mimicked by the entire NIH and have deviated badly needed funds from investigator-initiated RO1s (did somebody note that he is proud of haing pioneered the new biosketch?).

    His view of cancer as a disease where the host plays no role and selective support of KRAS-driven diseases do no match with these times of emerging immunotherapies and a more comprehensive view of cancer as a systemic disease.

    His blatant support for his cronies and old farts (the Outstanding award is predicted to absorb 30% of NCI funds in a few years) and lack of connection with the funding mechanisms that support most scientists has lead to decisions that did not help the terrible situation created by congressional paralysis and the anti-science movement in the GOP.

    Good luck to him at Cornell and let's pray for a less "transformative" NCI director.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    I understand both the song and DoucheMonkey's point. The song is about a flat-out liar, who is intentionally lying for the purpose of getting what he wants. Varmus isn't lying. He's just failing to put two and two together to connect his own choices to their consequences for the enterprise as a whole.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Does the playa really know he is "flat out lying"? I say he does not.

  • Philapodia says:

    Sadly, how many times do upper administrators like Varmus or Rockey give up their weekends to walk the lonely halls of academic buildings like mythical St. K3rn to see what's going on with the little folk? Do they REALLY know how their actions and policies have affected the riffraff? Probably most of the time they visit someplace in their official capacity there's been a whole dog and pony show put on, and the people they are visiting are probably telling the college kids who rewash their pipette tips and steal eppies from other labs not to come in that day so they seem more prosperous than they really are. Perhaps Varmus going back into the trenches will be a wakeup call if he can bring himself to interact with the unwashed masses (ie anyone lower than full prof/Dean).

  • datahound says:

    Even though I should be used to this at this point in my life, it amazes me that someone as knowledgeable and thoughtful as Dr. Varmus does not seem to be able to get passed his own experiences and connect the dots. Dr. Varmus and colleagues seemed to start to see the problems only when they started to affect those of his generation/peer group and then reacted with the biosketch and the established investigator award. I agree with CPP. He is not lying. He just seems to be trapped in his own experience/perspective.

  • rxnm says:

    Varmus accepts his 7 year grant from NCI in 5...4...3...

  • dsks says:

    "Two, NCI is going to work on a plan to potentially fund staff scientists."

    I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I've certainly been in favour of having a more stable senior research scientist position in labs. On the other, this has the potential of just solidifying the emerging trend towards academic/intellectual rent-seeking by existing established PIs. That is to say that, far from continuing to contribute meaningfully to Teh Science with their ideas and vision as many would like to think they do, we'll have at least some powerful lab heads that maintain their prestige primarily off the blood, sweat and innovation of the staff they higher (at a compensation level substantially lower than the PIs ). Feudal lords living off the labour of the serfs in their fiefdoms sorta thang.

    With universities no longer expanding (contracting in fact) the fact that an increasing number of investigators are wanting to hang on in their into their 70's and beyond can only make things worse for the following generation of scientists. If senior scientists can't see this, and the harm it will do to the scientific endeavour as a whole, then all that intelligence and vision they believe they still have to contribute to Teh Science is perhaps not as stellar as they might think.

    I don't doubt that these scientists have no conscious desire to negatively impact the careers of their mentees and other young scientists. On the contrary, I think many truly have the best intentions. Perhaps believing with serious conviction that they're still hot shit and that it would be a disservice to Teh Science to step out of the game while they're still on such a perpetual roll. I just invite them to take a moment and consider two things. First, though they may have achieved greatness largely on their own efforts, how much of their continued output is still truly driven by their own awesome ideas as opposed to those produced, or strongly inspired by, the energetic and bright young scientists they hire in their laboratories (hired presumably because they're energetic and bright)? Second, do they really think that, had they never been born, the accomplishments of their lives would not have simply been accomplished by someone else within a similar time frame?

  • Joe says:

    OK, 75 is certainly retirement age, but is it possible that by taking this position he could be helping people? With his big name, will he be able to attract private donations that might endow professorships at this med school? Is he being given additional positions to fill? I imagine that he might be able to help some careers and bring in some big (non-NIH) funds.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Note: the best and the brightest trainees go to the biggest, most active labs because that is where they can do the best science and get the career bennies. Yet this puts them into internecine warfare in which only the PI is guaranteed the win, no matter what happens.

  • Established PI says:

    Varmus loves NYC and Weil-Cornell is looking to get a big name to boost its status compared to its higher-ranked neighbors (Rockefeller, Sloan-Kettering). From that point of view, it is win-win. Sadly, it is likely that he will get one of those 7-year NCI awards, which will be a waste of the taxpayers' money. But as Datahound points out, he is passing up a golden opportunity to use his position to advocate for biomedical science. We need to look elsewhere for leadership.

  • rxnm says:

    when I was a disgruntledoc, I was eviscerated on this blog for suggesting that the asymmetric benefits of my labor to me and my PI was structurally unfair.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Is that a fact?

  • I'm always surprised how people who run agencies*, whenever confronted with these kinds of issues, act as if they lack (or previously lacked) agency to fix the problem (even if only partially) .

    A puzzle, it is.

    *technically, NCI isn't an agency, but the institutes are pretty autonomous and Varmus did tender his resignation to President Obama, not to Collins.

  • mytchondria says:

    CPP disagreed with me and didn't swear at me. I feel like I feel so....empty?

  • yikes says:

    @Est PI: "he will get one of those 7-year NCI awards, which will be a waste of the taxpayers' money."

    Why do you think it will be a waste?

  • drugmonkey says:

    When was the last time you started up a "modest" laboratory from scratch? Under normal scenarios that is a five year investment minimum before things start really humming. Could spend that money on a midcareer lab that is about to lose all the momentum that has been built up. Or launch a noob with a 30 yr career ahead of her, instead of a guy who might stroke out at any minute.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Funding just about any scientist is rarely a waste. Meaning waste in the sense that absolutely nothing results. But there are better and worse investments to be made here.

  • Datahound says:

    Science Insider story: http://news.sciencemag.org/scientific-community/2015/03/outgoing-u-s-cancer-chief-reflects-his-record-what-s-next

    Although Cornell is giving him startup funds, he expects to apply for grants. At NIH, his lab “just got reviewed and I did well,” Varmus says. “I don’t believe in making arithmetic judgments,” he adds. “I should be judged by what I do.” And in the future, he adds, “If things aren’t going well, I’ll quit.”

  • drugmonkey says:

    Grants. Plural.

    In addition to startup.

    Yes, very "modest" plans he has. I'm sure.

  • Grumble says:

    "At NIH, his lab 'just got reviewed and I did well' "

    Imagine that.

  • Kate says:

    Can we talk more about what this "staff scientist" position would look like? I feel like this solution has been floating around for a while, but I've not seen any specifics. Salary range? How funded? Temporary versus permanent? Staff or faculty or "faculty"? Responsibilities/deliverables?

    It seems like if the pay were good enough, coupled to the potential flexibility of this job, that this would be a decent gig for some. I would liken this position to some of the higher-level people I see in my parts who are running Core Facilities.

  • Established PI says:

    @yikes It is a waste to fund Varmus in the sense that it will come at the expense at giving a chance to several starting PIs, or keeping things running for mid-career PIs trying to renew their grants. It's a zero-sum game. You can bet he has a big startup package from Weill-Cornell and that private foundations, non-profits and NYC's wealthy elite could easily fund his modest research enterprise. Will Varmus continue to make important contributions? I am sure something useful will come out of his lab, but the research enterprise as a whole loses if it allows yet another lab or so to close because they have given the funds to Varmus instead.

    This is nothing personal against Varmus; his science is great, he is great, and I think he has done great things for the NIH despite the many complaints people have about his recent tenure at NCI. I just think we are getting short-term small gains by seeing what else he can still give to the community at the expense of the future of the biomedical enterprise.

  • BugDoc says:

    "Varmus isn't lying. He's just failing to put two and two together to connect his own choices to their consequences for the enterprise as a whole."

    How is it that an incredibly smart guy like Dr. Varmus cannot put two and two together in this case, or can't get past his own experience? That is denial of the highest order. I have too much respect for him as a scientist to think that he can't see the pyramid tottering underneath him.

  • MF says:

    I was just reading a newsletter from one of the professional societies that I belong to. The membership of this one is mostly MDs (it's a society dedicated to a medical subspecialty that also happens to overlap with my area of research). I found an interesting article on the workforce issues in this medical subspecialty, which discussed how the demand for this specialty is decreasing, and, therefore, the number of fellowship positions will need to be reduced in some way. There is a task force dedicated to analyzing the labor market situation and proposing some solutions as to how to reduce the excess fellowship positions. It is interesting that we almost never see this type of detailed discussions and analysis in biomedical research (beyond some vague statements about alternative careers etc.).

  • rxnm says:

    BugDoc, it's 2015, we are aware of how thoroughly blinkered everyone is when it comes to perceiving their own advantages and protecting their ego. Nothing to do with "good at science."

  • qaz says:

    Do we have any evidence that he cannot see the pyramid tottering underneath him? We have evidence that he is not working to solve that problem. But that is a very different question.

    Isn't it consistent with his ego to believe that the pyramid tottering is the way it is and his job is to try to be the next Newton and contribute the best science he personally can?

    NB: I do not know any him at all. I am merely pointing out that the fact that he does not act to support the pyramid tottering beneath him does not mean he is not aware of it.

  • yikes says:

    @Est PI...I am acutely aware of the zero sum. But it makes me a little uneasy to throw the oldies out of the lifeboat just because of their age. I thought other discussion here highlighted how little utility there would be to redistribute those grants, overall? The real problem is the total amount of money in science is too small. I feel like we are collectively responding to meager times by being divisive (throw out the oldies! throw out the fat cats! throw out the soft money crowd! let the mid-careers starve first!). I'd love it if we responded instead with solidarity.

  • pablito says:

    Why not also complain about Varmus' intramural funding for his NCI lab? The 2013 budget for 1ZIAHG200375-03 was $1,240,285 (which is not out of line with many other intramural PI budgets).

  • drugmonkey says:

    Solidarity of the Animal Farm type is what my generation is being asked to serve under. We're Boxer and the pigs are..well, you know.

    Screw that. If you really want to see "solidarity", mid career scientists are ready to see a little of that directed our way now, thank you.

  • ProfDuder says:

    It wasn't that long ago (1994) when many universities still had mandatory retirement at age 70. The Oldies, like Varmus, certainly benefited from that. How about giving us mid-career people a chance at doing something?

  • yikes says:

    OK, that's a great point, and a good reason not to like those initiatives to "help the ESI's" and "help the emeriti with their awesome-but-unfunded 35%ile reviews."

  • Datahound says:

    I exchanged some emails with Dr. Varmus. He is not planning on applying for an Established Investigator grant and I think is aiming for a single R01 to help support his research. He notes that this will be less that his current intramural budget. This budget is right at the median for intramural investigators (see http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/201402/PresidentsMessage/ ).

  • datahound says:

    Analysis of impact of ending mandatory retirement age on universities:

  • Rib says:

    Seems like Dr. Varmus is exactly the type of revolving door leadership datahound, PP, and DM were wishing for over here: http://datahound.scientopia.org/2015/03/02/the-nih-office-of-extramural-research-oer/

  • drugmonkey says:

    He's 75, homes.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Will his "single R01" be a modular, programmatically cut to 4 years and $200K? That miiiiight just qualify as modest.

  • drugmonkey says:

    As far as the IC Directors' IRP awards go, I think that is an entirely different discussion to have about percent effort and how much work being the Director entails. Varmunt is leaving the IRP so it seems a little misplaced here.

  • mytchondria says:

    Varmus pulled in 4.4M a year as head of Sloan Kettering and something I'm sure will be on the order of 8 -10 modules of an Ro1 in salary from Cornell. I scoff at the notion that anything Varmus would do would be modest as labs go particularly if it is to draw resources from NIH. He's 75. Add 18 months to secure a 5 year grant and by my math, he'll be 176 for a competing renewal.

    Also Datahound, do go dropping paper about retirement age being lifted from 20 flipping years ago. Here's the graph you really want....pulmetting young investigators. Increasing oldsters. From this decade. http://news.sciencemag.org/funding/2015/02/nih-proposal-create-grant-aging-scientists-hits-nerve

    Didn't we just do SfN presidents who weren't advocates but still were 75+ and drawing 4M/y from NIH? We aren't talking folks who are adjuncts and about to go broke if they retire. We are talking about the giant wads of paper that keep accumulating shitte in your sewage line barely allowing a trickle of flow to the spickets downstream.

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