NIH Director Departs

24 September 2008 (All day)

National Institutes of Health

Head honcho. Zerhouni faced budget challenges and developed his signature Roadmap while heading NIH.

National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni announced today that he will step down by the end of October, after a 6.5-year tenure during which he dealt with a flat budget and ethics controversies while working to break down institutional barriers at the $29 billion institute. He has not decided on his next position.

Zerhouni, 57, an Algerian-born radiologist and administrator at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Maryland, before he was tapped for the NIH job, came to the agency at a tough time: A 5-year doubling of NIH's budget was ending, and it's been followed by nearly level funding in the years since. Zerhouni's signature achievement was creating the NIH Roadmap, a set of crosscutting initiatives funded by all of NIH's 27 institutes that includes basic research tools, translational research programs, and new awards for high-risk research and young investigators. The Roadmap has drawn criticism for taking funds from traditional investigator-initiated grants at a time when success rates have plummeted from more than 30% to about 20%. But the program has been praised by Congress, which passed a law in 2006 giving the NIH director more power over NIH's portfolio and creating a permanent common fund for Roadmap-like projects.

Zerhouni also faced several controversies: He defended sexual research to a Republican-led Congress, departed from the Bush Administration's tough line against human embryonic stem cell research, and addressed an uproar over industry consulting by NIH scientists by banning such outside activities.

Zerhouni told reporters today that his departure follows "the natural cycle of tenures for this position," which are historically held for about 6 years. He wanted to step down before the November presidential election so that the next Administration can "focus on NIH as early and as soon as possible," he said. Although he has been considered for the presidency of JHU, he does not have a job lined up and said he wanted to "take some time out." President George W. Bush has not yet named an acting NIH director, but Zerhouni said he expects it will be NIH's current deputy director, Raynard Kington.

"Elias inherited a tough job at a tough time, and I think he's done extremely well," says Harold Varmus, the previous NIH director, now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Varmus says the new powers now held by the NIH director make the position "a lot more interesting" compared with when he was there struggling to get institute directors to work together. Biomedical research advocacy groups were also full of praise for Zerhouni's efforts to deal with flat budgets while launching the Roadmap and programs such as young investigator grants. He "has tackled the dual challenges of leading the NIH during the final years of the doubling ... and the difficult years that followed," said Darrell Kirch, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C., in a statement.

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