Published online 24 September 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1131
Corrected online: 28 September 2008

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NIH director resigns

Elias Zerhouni departs in advance of presidential election.

Elias Zerhouni, the diagnostic radiologist who shook up the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) with the goal of making it more creative, clinical and cross-disciplinary, announced Wednesday that he would resign as agency director by 31 October.

Zerhouni, 57, said that he was leaving before national elections on 4 November so that there would be no question of his lingering into a future administration.

Zerhouni oversaw the agency through tight fiscal times.NIH

"I felt that it was very important, for the sake of NIH, to not just stay and have the [next president's] transition team think: NIH is taken care of. They have a decent director. Let's focus on other things," he told reporters on a conference call. Zerhouni, who served as the fifteenth director of the $29 billion agency, said that he had notified President George W. Bush of his decision several weeks ago.

Changing of the guard

Raynard Kington, NIH's deputy director, is expected to serve as acting director until a replacement is named by the new president and confirmed by the Senate. That can take months or years. Former NIH director Harold Varmus left his job at the end of 1999; Bush did not nominate Zerhouni as the new director until March 2002, and the Senate confirmed him in the job that May.

Kington has been deputy director of NIH since 2003. A medical doctor with a master's degree in business administration and a PhD in health policy and economics, he directed a division in the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before moving to NIH in 2000.

Zerhouni said he does not have another job lined up and dismissed recent rumours that he would be returning to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where the president, William Brody, is retiring at the end of this year. Zerhouni was executive vice dean at the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins before moving to NIH. "I know the speculation is I'm going to Johns Hopkins University and that has not been decided by me at all," he said. "I wanted to take some time out between this and considering any other jobs." He added that he planned to do some writing about the speed and implications of the changes now happening in biomedical research.

During Zerhouni's tenure, those changes have run up hard against fiscal realities. Although he enjoyed the final two years of the doubling of NIH's budget, to $27.1 billion in 2003, he has since had to preside over that budget's stagnation and, as he noted in the conference call, a ten per cent decline in its purchasing power.

Varmus, who is now director of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, earlier this month praised his successor's management of the agency in tight times. "He has done an excellent job on many fronts," said Varmus. "He has developed excellent relations with Congress. He helped Congress write a good [NIH] reauthorization bill. He has demonstrated that even in a period of fiscal constraint he's been able to do some novel things. And he stood up to the president on stem-cell research."

Varmus was referring to Zerhouni's testimony to the Senate in March 2007, when he said that US science would be "better served" with access to more stem cell lines. In a competitive world, he told senators, "it is important for us not to fight with one hand tied behind our back here."

The hot seat

Although Zerhouni has ruffled feathers in the research community by launching costly new initiatives even as NIH's budget growth has slowed to a crawl, the president of a key group representing biomedical scientists had nothing but praise for him on Wednesday.

"He has been tireless and articulate as he rallied support for the funding of biomedical sciences," says Richard Marchase, the president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and vice president of research at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. "These were tough economic times and he worked very hard to make the best of them for the NIH in general and for his investigators."

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A year and a half into his tenure, Zerhouni inaugurated his "Road Map for Medical Research," an initiative to promote large, bold and transformative inter-institute research initiatives. The Road Map, funded this year with 1.7% of the agency's total budget, put noses out of joint among scientists who perceived it as robbing their meat-and-potatoes work in a time of fiscal scarcity.

Zerhouni also implemented stiff new conflict-of-interest rules for scientists at the agency after the Los Angeles Times exposed lucrative payments from drug companies to intramural NIH researchers. 

Corrected:

An earlier version of this story said that Raynard Kington would serve as acting director until a replacement is named. In fact, Zerhouni said that he expected Kington to serve in that capacity.
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