T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T     N O V E M B E R  –  D E C E M B E R  1999

Shalala Launches Search for Successor



by Celia Hooper

In Good Spirits: Minutes before the town meeting here October 12, HHS Secretary Donna Shalala (left) spoke with institute and scientific directors about the pending departure of Harold Varmus (center) from the NIH directorship and the appointment of Deputy Director Ruth Kirschstein (right) as acting director during the search for a successor.

Late in 1996—in what he defined as a midterm interview with The NIH Catalyst—NIH Director Harold Varmus foreshadowed his exit from NIH with the frank declaration that he thought six years was the optimal term for an NIH director. On October 7 this year, Varmus turned the theoretical pronouncement into actuality, announcing that he would leave NIH by the end of December to head the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Three for the Road

There were three rationales behind Varmus’ late 1996 statement to The Catalyst. His main concern was the politicization of the selection of NIH directors. "I see myself as unlinked to the electoral process," he said. "I don’t believe the NIH directorship should be as politicized as it’s been the past eight years or so. I didn’t come in with the election . . . and my expectation is that I’ll probably leave the position before the second administration is over, which would give the president a chance to name someone else who’d also span the electoral events and would disconnect the NIH nomination process from the electoral process."

Visiting the NIH campus five days after Varmus’ announcement, his boss, Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services, made it clear she was sympathetic with Varmus’ view. At a town meeting in Masur Auditorium, the secretary started out by saying that she believed the appointment of Varmus to lead NIH during this outstanding era of progress in biomedical research would prove to be a great legacy of the Clinton administration. "NIH ought to be seen as an extraordinary institution and, thus, politics should be left out of the process" of selecting a new director, Shalala said.

"Whether or not that is possible depends on whether there is the political will in Congress to do that and on the ability to streamline the selection process," she observed. She said that she had already initiated conversations about the search with political leaders, was ready to put together a search committee, and would take an active role in the recruitment herself. "I feel very strongly that there should be a seam-lessness in the NIH leadership." Asked if she felt that the needed political will was indeed present in Congress, Shalala told The Catalyst, "I have some indication that the political will exists" to find a replacement for Varmus before the election in November 2000.


Arguably one of the most widely respected directors in NIH history, Varmus is not perceived as having grown stale—the second reason he cited in 1996 for a limited stand by an NIH director: "You can do a lot of things in six years, but beyond that you probably start to get stale."

"Au contraire," in the case of Varmus, say NIH leaders. NIMH director Steven Hyman says "Harold Varmus has been a spectacular leader because he has invariably put the needs of science ahead of politics and has expressed his values with great clarity and force." Hyman sees Varmus’ prime achievement as creating "a superb and collegial atmosphere in which to work. There were no hidden agendas—the only agenda was to make it possible to perform and to fund the most worthy science."

NIAID Director Tony Fauci concurs. "Harold Varmus has raised the bar of excellence among scientific leaders. He clearly has been an absolutely outstanding NIH director. His policies and actions are driven by a passion for science superimposed on a prodigious intellect."

In addition to expressing his enjoyment in working with Varmus, Fauci lauded Varmus’ cultivation of "an atmosphere in which nothing short of the highest level of scholarship is acceptable."

Varmus’ third rationale for a six-year term limit for NIH directors was the potential for faux pas and accumulation of enemies over a longer haul. Some years of experience give a director time to win supporters and forge alliances, he observed in late ’96. "On the other hand, the longer you’re here, the more likely you are to have some major screw-up. I’ve been lucky so far to have avoided major potholes, and I think my credibility is pretty good."

In the six years that I have been privileged to serve . . .’

Among many other firsts, Harold Varmus will enter the history books as the first NIH Director ever to send a personal thank-you note via e-mail to all NIHers to tell them of his departure. Here is the text of his message:

October 7, 1999

To members of the NIH staff:

Today I have written to President Clinton to inform him that I will be leaving NIH at the end of this year to head the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

In the six years that I have been privileged to serve as Director of the NIH, I have had many pleasures, and most of them have depended on the extraordinary qualities of the people who work here. Naturally, I feel a special debt to the people I have worked with most closely—the Directors of the Institutes and Centers, the members of my senior staff in the Office of the Director, and the intramural scientists who have interacted with my laboratory group. But the spirit of commitment to the goals and standards of this remarkable agency is everywhere apparent and has given me great gratification throughout my time here.

Secretary Shalala and I are working to insure an orderly transition in the weeks ahead and will keep you informed of plans as they develop.

With sincere thanks for your help during the past six years,


If Varmus lived in fear of potholes in the second half of his tenure at NIH, it didn’t show. When he perceived science to be at stake, he stood his ground in its defense. One example was sticking his neck out for universal online access to the scientific literature, despite heavy opposition from some scientific publishers (see "Varmus Champions Free Cyberspace Access to All Biomedical research Reports").

In January 2000, a revised version of the E-biomed concept will go online as "PubMed Central" and will begin receiving, storing, and distributing content—including peer-reviewed articles, preprints, and other screened reports from existing journals, new journals, and reputable scientific organizations that have agreed to participate.

In another skirmish—the quest for degree-granting authority for an NIH graduate program—Varmus opted to retrench when faced with opposition from a few members of his Advisory Committee. A revised plan calls instead for improving and expanding opportunities for graduate students to be trained at NIH and receive diplomas from partner institutions (see "NIH Morphs Graduate School Idea").

Another difficult issue—human embryonic stem cell research—was still looming as The Catalyst went to press. Earlier this year, Varmus said that research using human pluripotent stem cells was not illegal, according to an opinion by HHS attorneys. Given its potential, the work should be supported by federal funds and in accordance with federal guidelines, he said. Such work now remains verboten pending finalization of the guidelines and oversight procedures.

The Road Ahead

For many of Varmus’ admirers, it is exactly such quagmires that now make him almost indispensable. Contrary to Varmus’ midterm prediction, his six years are not seen by others as a time of accumulating mistakes but of increasingly assured defense of NIH’s core values. Says NHGRI director Francis Collins, Varmus "has made good science the essential currency for all discussions about NIH’s present and future. He has inspired an unprecedented level of trust and respect from the leadership of the Congress and the Administration."

Looking back at some of the matters Varmus tackled earlier in his tenure, Collins says the NIH director "has been brilliant in his methods of addressing difficult problems—from mouse genomics to research tools and intellectual property—by convincing the best and brightest of this generation of scientists and policy experts to devote their most determined energies to helping solve the problems at hand. . . . He has never sacrificed ideals and truth for expediency, even if it involved bucking the tide," Collins says.

Offering promise for the future, Collins says, is that Varmus "has recruited a superb cadre of NIH scientific leadership (I can say that because I’m not one of them—I was already here!) who will continue his legacy for a long time to come."

NICHD director Duane Alexander says that the combination of gifts Varmus has brought to NIH over his short tenure here were responsible for one of the most conspicuous and enviable advances NIH has made in the past couple of years–its budget increases. "Dr. Varmus has had an enormous impact on NIH in a relatively short time. He has markedly increased the cooperation and collaboration among institutes, to the benefit of everyone," says Alexander.

"His presence here and the atmosphere he has created have made it easier for all of us to recruit top-notch scientists to NIH, both intramurally and extramurally. His personal interactions with the Congress and the sense of confidence in this institution he has inspired have been major factors in the remarkable increases in funding that have come to NIH."

Filling Varmus’ shoes is just the beginning for Shalala’s search committee. Finding someone whose appointment at the end of a Democratic administration could be confirmed by a Republican Congress will surely be tougher. And persuading someone to accept the position under these tenuous conditions may be the ultimate challenge. In the meantime, Shalala has named NIH Deputy Director Ruth Kirschstein to be acting director until a permanent replacement is found [see box]. "We will give Ruth all the support she needs," Shalala promised the crowd at the town meeting. "This [NIH] is the crown jewel of my empire."

Ruth Kirschstein

In Good Hands

Until NIH has a new permanent director, it will be back in the familiar hands of Ruth Kirschstein—one of NIH’s most experienced leaders. She has served as deputy director since 1993 and was also acting director of NIH for five months before Varmus arrived in 1993.

Kirschstein holds an M.D. from Tulane University School of Medicine (New Orleans). She first came to NIH in 1956; from 1957 to 1972, she did vaccine safety research at the Division of Biologics Standards (now the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research) of the FDA. She headed NIGMS from 1974 to 1993 and served as the acting associate director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health when it was first established.

Kirschstein is the author of more than 70 scientific publications and is a member of the Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1985 and 1995, she received the highest honor for career civil servants: the Presidential Rank Award for Distinguished Executives.




Day of Judgment: At his last NIH Research Festival attended as NIH director—and rendering possibly his heaviest decision—Harold Varmus teamed up with four other music masters to adjudicate the "battle of the bands." The historic return match pitting NIH’s own "The Directors" against Johns Hopkins’ (mostly) "Wild Type" was the bands’ first joint appearance since the legendary play-off at the National Academy of Sciences in December 1997, when the people’s award went to "Wild Type." Demanding a rematch in which they would be judged by NIH partisans, "The Directors" roared into second place—and a good time was had by all.


The Directors: (left to right) NIAMS’ Steve Katz, NCI’s Rick Klausner, NHGRI’s Francis Collins, and NIAMS researcher John O’Shea gave a new twist to "Blowin’ in the Wind," in which they capped the question of "how many years will it take . . . ?" with "the answer, my friend, is up to Gottesman; the answer is up to Gottesman."
Wild Type: Johns Hopkins cancer geneticist Bert Vogelstein (left) gets up to get down on keyboard, while Ellie Carson-Walter, vocalist and postdoc in his lab, belts out a tune and Hopkins postdoc Chris Torrance and Pat Morin (formerly Hopkins, now NIA) let loose on their strings.



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