T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T      J U L Y  –  A U G U S T   2002



On the Job: Elias Zerhouni (center) enjoyed his inaugural meeting with his committee of outside advisors. Insiders Ruth Kirschstein (left), NIH deputy director, and Michael Gottesman (right), deputy director for intramural research, enjoyed it as well.


That expectation is fueled by a somewhat mistaken comparison between landing on the moon and curing disease, he said. The former was a technological challenge based on known laws of physics and gravity—and the presidential promise of a moonshot within 10 years was therefore realistic. But the endpoints and signposts along the way are not so well defined in biomedical science, he said. "We need to communicate to the public that we face a knowledge challenge."

Meeting that challenge by bringing the tools and mysteries of biomedical research into the lives of students in grades 7 through 12 is the essence of the CityLab program, a project funded by the NCRR Science Education Partnership Award and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The program brings students into Boston University labs or brings a mobile lab to the students on their own turf. Zerhouni appeared captivated by a well-choreographed presentation by about a dozen CityLab students and after they had finished asked for a show of hands: "How many of you will be around this table in 25 years?" All hands went up. "Please," Zerhouni requested, "leave your names here, so we may follow your progress. I would love to do that."

He recalled that he was eight years old when his father, a teacher of math and science, set him on his career path: "He showed me experiments with magnesium and oxygen, and there was this big flash—and that’s what got me!"



by Celia Hooper

Meeting with the scientific directors of the NIH intramural research programs a month after beginning work here, NIH’s new director talked a little, listened a lot, and passed out assignments.

Within a week, Elias Zerhouni gently requested, the SDs should send him descriptions of three areas in their institutes’ portfolios that represented unique contributions to biomedical research. He also urged them to form a think tank to identify research bottlenecks.

The goal of the assignments, he said, was to strengthen his hand "in conveying a vision of the future of biomedical research and the knowledge gaps that must be filled."

Zerhouni said he sees an increasing need for a "big picture" analysis of bottlenecks in research and a team approach in its conduct. "There is a need for convergence of scientists and disciplines—a thematic approach to management and in the way we describe the work," to Congress and others, internally and externally, Zerhouni told the SDs. "It is much easier to convey the science as a theme than as part of an organizational chart."

He noted that talks with members of Congress before his confirmation hearing made him acutely aware that NIH will be held accountable for results from the fast pace of funding increase it has enjoyed over the past four years.

Scientists need to educate patient-advocacy and lobbying groups to appreciate the difference between "science-based funding and funding-based science," Zerhouni advised. His approach to the earmarking issue is for NIH "to be utterly transparent about the way we decide which science to pursue."

The scientific community also has to be mindful that research funding is not independent of macroeconomic issues, which will need to be addressed in any cogent argument in support of research.

Zerhouni made clear that he relishes being at NIH. After touring some of NIH’s new research buildings, including animal and clinical imaging facilities, he said he was amazed at the progress. Calling the intramural research program "the best in the world, second to none," Zerhouni then threw down his own gauntlet: "I want to make it better."


by Fran Pollner

Elias Zerhouni met with his Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of NIH for the first time on June 6. Except for the passing of the gavel from Ruth Kirschstein (once again NIH deputy director) to the new director, the agenda for the meeting had been set long before the date and before it was known that the vacancy for the top spot at NIH would be filled by the time of the meeting.

When Zerhouni commented on how much fun the meeting was—what with jovial introductions, a comical exchange between himself and ACD member and former boss Bill Brody (president of the Johns Hopkins University), and a delightful performance by students from the CityLab of Boston University School of Medicine—ACD members hastened to disabuse him of the notion that the meetings were always so appealing.

But it was too late. The camaraderie and collegiality had already been established.

From his opening remark that he was "honored and excited to be here" and impressed by the composition of his advisory committee, Zerhouni made it clear that he had no reservations about having taken on the responsibilities of the NIH director—even when he joked that were it not for Ruth Kirschstein, there were a few days he might have left for the evening and not returned. He mentioned that during his time at Hopkins he’d been on the receiving end of other job offers that he’d declined rather quickly, but that the one job he always knew he wouldn’t hesitate to accept would be the one he now had.

In office scarcely more than two weeks, Zerhouni had not yet absorbed everything there was to know about the internal workings of NIH and its relations with the political powers that be, but, he said, he had discerned "one big difference between my job at Hopkins and my job here—there I did four jobs for the price of one; here I have one job and so many bosses I’m not done counting. . . ."

He had also become aware during his first two weeks at NIH and during the nomination process before that the "first and foremost" issue on the mind of every senator and congressman with whom he spoke was the need for a clear return on the doubling of the NIH budget. "There is a huge cry for accountability and transparency . . . and the translation of discovery into tangible benefits."




Return to Table of Contents