Could science superstar Harold Varmus be named the next director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI)? Last week, that rumor swept through the cancer research community. But Varmus, a Nobel Prize winner and former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), calls the idea "far-fetched" and suggests he has no plans to leave his research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Cancer researchers have been waiting for more than a year for the Obama Administration to replace current NCI Director John Niederhuber, a holdover from the Bush Administration. The NCI position is appointed by the U.S. president, but this time the search is being led by NIH Director Francis Collins, who once worked for Varmus as genome institute director. Sources say that interviews last fall with several candidates did not result in an offer, and the search committee started over with a new slate. The Cancer Letter, a Washington, D.C., newsletter, has suggested that candidates are hesitant because Collins wants to curb the $5.1 billion NCI's independence-it's the only NIH institute whose director doesn't need central NIH approval for certain budget and hiring decisions. Another deterrent for some academic cancer researchers may be that they would have to accept a sharp pay cut and sever any ties to drug companies, including divesting stocks, to comply with strict NIH ethics rules.
Last week, reports circulated at NCI and in the extramural community that, incredible as it might seem, Varmus, NIH director from 1993 to 1999 and now president of Sloan-Kettering, was the Administration's pick. When asked to comment, Varmus told ScienceInsider by e-mail: "I have no idea where you are getting such rumors but I can tell you that no one from the only reputable source, the White House, has contacted me!" He suggests that "someone" made this "far-fetched proposal" after he announced in January that, at age 70, he will step down as Sloan-Kettering president when the center s board finds a replacement. "However, I've just renewed my R01 [NIH research grant] and am purchasing a new apartment on the West Side" of Manhattan, Varmus writes. " Draw your own conclusions!"
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services told ScienceInsider on Friday: "Nothing's moving on NCI right now."