John Niederhuber, the new director of the US National Cancer Institute (NCI), says politics has no role at the institute. That may be the case now, but some staff and cancer activists saw Niederhuber's predecessor—Bush family friend and physician Andrew von Eschenbach—as a classic political appointee.

A urologist, von Eschenbach arrived at the institute in 2002 with little experience at the bench. He has since moved on to the Food and Drug Administration, appointed in a hurry after former commissioner Lester Crawford was accused of financial conflicts of interest. Crawford pled guilty to fraud in October.

Few are willing to criticize von Eschenbach publicly, but privately NCI staffers are thrilled with the change. Niederhuber, who officially took over the agency in October after working for von Eschenbach for a year, understands both science and the institute in a way his predecessor did not, they say.

“I'm very much a believer in having science drive the decisions we make.” John Niederhuber, US National Cancer Institute

“Science is the yellow line down the road for me,” Niederhuber says. “I'm very much a believer in science and having science drive the decisions we make.”

Like von Eschenbach, who survived both melanoma and prostate cancer, Niederhuber has also had a personal experience with cancer: his wife Tracey succumbed in 2001 to breast cancer. He says he promised her before she died that he would work to improve patients' access to experimental therapies.

Until 2002, Niederhuber was a surgeon and oncologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he also headed the school's Comprehensive Cancer Center. But having served on several NCI advisory panels over the past 30 years, he was a familiar face at the Bethesda campus even before he joined the staff last year.

Based on the comments he gets from staff who come up to talk to him after meetings, he says he feels welcomed.

“People say that my presence and my understanding of the science has given them a sense of purpose and belonging,” he says.

Robert Wiltrout, director of the NCI's Center for Cancer Research, says Niederhuber is a stabilizing force at the NCI.

“He's got a whole portfolio of experience,” says Wiltrout. “He comes with the advantage of being a scientist and being a people person.”

Where von Eschenbach pursued large, sweeping programs—such as the improbable goal of ending cancer deaths by 2015—Niederhuber is interested in translating discoveries into treatments, more welcome when the institute has been weathering a funding freeze.

“[Niederhuber] is well aware of the pain that is widespread in the cancer research community and the toll that it is taking on young people's career plans,” says Robert Weinberg, a biologist at Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, who has been critical of von Eschenbach's emphasis on large projects.

Still, it won't be easy to find money to fund new projects within the limits of the tight NIH budget, says Diana Zuckerman, president of the Washington-based advocacy group National Research Center for Women & Families. The group in 2004 worked closely with the NCI to put together a brochure on surgery choices for women with breast cancer.

“The challenge for Niederhuber is to make tough decisions,” she says, “when there isn't enough funding for all the important work that NCI does.”