Late yesterday afternoon, as Washington, D.C., was readying to shut down for a snowstorm, National Cancer Institute (NCI) chief and Nobel Prize–winning cancer biologist Harold Varmus announced that he is stepping down at the end of this month. Although few even on his own staff were expecting the news, it was not a big surprise coming less than 2 years before the end of the Obama administration, when many presidential appointees leave for their next job.
In a resignation letter to the research community, Varmus decried the harsh budget climate he has faced and pointed to a list of accomplishments, from creating an NCI center for global health to launching a project to find drugs targeting RAS, an important cell signaling pathway in cancer. “I think he’s done a wonderful job under difficult circumstances,” says cancer biologist Tyler Jacks of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and chair of NCI’s main advisory board. “He brought tremendous scientific credibility to the position. And he managed to do some new and creative things.” NCI Deputy Director Douglas Lowy will serve as acting director.
In a phone interview this morning as the first snowflakes began to fall, Varmus reflected on his time at NCI and what he will do when he returns full time to New York City. (He has been commuting from his home there to NCI in Bethesda, Maryland.) He will run a “modestly sized” lab at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, Varmus wrote in his letter, as well as serve as an adviser to its dean, and work with the New York Genome Center.