by Rebecca Kolberg
After more than two decades with NCI, during which he rose from a clinical associate in the Metabolism Branch to institute director, Samuel Broder is venturing into the private sector. Before Broder packed his bags in April to join Ivax Corp., a growing drug research and development firm based in Miami, he gave The NIH Catalyst a few minutes for a free-wheeling discussion that touched on everything from NIH's institute structure to his concept of "term limits" for high-ranking NIH administrators.
Q: How has the NIH intramural research program changed since you started here in 1972?
Broder: I think the scientific opportunities are much greater now. Scientists and clinicians are able to ask a lot more interesting questions and, in effect, get a lot more done in a limited amount of time. Some of the changes in how careers in government are viewed in the current political climate don't make me that happy. I think government service is substantially less valued now than when I first came here.
Q: What advice do you have for young scientists just starting out at NIH today?
Broder: To recognize the unbelievable opportunities that exist in the intramural program, to focus on those areas that really excite the imagination or that an individual really loves at a visceral level, and not to let a day go by without continuing the focus and continuing the commitment.
Q: Do you think it's more difficult for them now than it was for you two decades ago?
Broder: Yes. I think the standards of excellence and the limitations of resources that are now at work introduce enormous stresses for people and enormous uncertainties. That makes me sad.
Q: In what direction do you see NCI heading, and what course should it take?
Broder: Ever since the National Cancer Act was passed, there has been a source of friction, or potential friction, between the director of the NIH and whoever occupies the directorship of the NCI. But I think it is very important for the chain of authority -- whether it's the director of NIH, or assistant secretary for health, or whatever -- to recognize that the NCI is a formidable asset to the NIH as a whole. It does have some special authorities, but those authorities are formidable assets to the NIH.
The National Cancer Program belongs to the NIH, and much of the revolution in American biotechnology ... was a direct and indirect offshoot of the foundation of the National Cancer Program in the early `70s. And we are still reaping the benefits of that in a number of ways. ... I think the intramural program in the total sense is enjoying a benefit of those decisions that were made in the early `70s. It's very important that NCI be viewed as an asset and not as a problem. ...
It's very important for the director of the NIH to get into the habit of praising and overtly supporting the National Cancer Program. It's something that does not require resources per se, it doesn't require special effort, but it does require a focus, an attention, and a visibility.
NCI serves as a model for enlarging the responsibilities and independence of all the institutes. ... For many years, NCI was uniquely situated to publish its own professional-needs budget ... and, in effect, that responsibility and privilege now has been given to other components. The Office of AIDS Research has such authority now, the NIMH has such an authority. NCI has certain special printing responsibilities, the Office of Cancer Communication has a special mission, the director of NCI by statute has a special cancer-information-dissemination responsibility, and all of that can be a foundation for new opportunities for NIH as a whole.
Q: In the era of government downsizing, is it realistic to expect institutes to move in the direction of greater autonomy as opposed to centralization?
Broder: I think the categorical institute concept was one of the most important, innovative ideas in science administration that ever evolved ... it provides a highly professional core of individuals who are committed to solving a health problem using science and the scientific method. It provides a focus with flexibility around a given disease or set of diseases or problems and at the same time, provides an intuitive line of communication with the public. ...
Many people say that the director of NIH is not a political appointment. Certainly, that is true in many ways because the person who holds that job almost invariably is someone of extremely high character and intellectual development. But there's no way of getting around the simple political reality that in government, if you serve in a position in the executive branch where the position is appointed by the president and subject to Senate confirmation, that's a political position. And there are many examples or potential examples where the political imperatives of the day have an effect and can work at the level of the director of the NIH. And that's why it's very important to preserve the historical diversity and independence and career orientation of the categorical research institutes. ...
If the political variables are completely unpredictable, it's important to have a strong core of career oriented, categorical research institutes and not [to] invest too much authority and to create too many expectations in the Office of the Director of NIH. The fact that the current [director of NIH] is a person of unbelievable credentials does not change what I'm saying. One does not determine the powers of the presidency of the United States on the assumption that the incumbent will always be Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln ...
Harold Varmus in many ways is an astonishingly gifted person, and we are fortunate to have him at the helm. It is very important in reviewing what authorities one wants to give to the Office of the Director of NIH ... to recognize that Harold Varmus does not have a lifetime appointment. We need to have a system that has appropriate balances, appropriate nonpolitical career orientations, and that is self-sustaining and is not predicated on any one person or personality. ... The categorical institutes and the research institutes that have evolved with time have been a wonderfully successful experiment, and they need to be preserved. Sometimes, when something is so successful and working so smoothly, you take it for granted. That part of the system ain't broke!
Q: What sort of leader does NCI need now?
Broder: It won't be hard to fill my shoes. There are large numbers of people who are highly qualified ... to come in and take the helm. The major requirement is that the person should burn with a passion to prevent and cure cancer. Once you fulfill that one critical job element, a lot of other things fall into line.
Q: What do you consider your biggest achievement at NIH?
Broder: I'd prefer to let other people judge that. I think the thing I'm happiest with is the ability to balance clinical and basic research in multiple formats -- and I think that balance is very important. ... I think that the ability of both basic scientists and clinical researchers to do extremely interesting and important projects and to work together on intellectually risky projects is a wonderful feature of the NIH. It makes this place a very magical place ... this will always be one of the most exciting places in the world to work.
Q: Why did you decide at this point in your career to enter the private sector?
Broder: I've been in the government -- the Public Health Service -- for 22 years ... I've done this job for six years. I want to stress that I don't think it is true in every case, but there are certain positions in government or in any organization that should have a voluntary term-limit rule. And I believe that director of the National Cancer Institute is one of those positions. I don't believe it is true for every major position here at the NIH ... but certainly presidentially appointed positions should have a voluntary, self-imposed term limit. Maybe four years, five years, six years -- something in that ballpark. Anything over six years is probably pushing the envelope.
When you take a high-level position, you need to make a number of serious, difficult, challenging decisions. In order to do the job right, you must, by definition, make some people unhappy. I would be very suspicious if anyone was ever to categorize a high-ranking individual as universally loved. That would imply to me that the individual either was never called upon to make difficult decisions or avoided them, and therefore avoided making anybody unhappy. I think the public good is the preeminent consideration, not a local, parochial good. In order to sharpen the focus and to make difficult decisions doable, there has to be some aspect of limitation. Otherwise, there would be a tendency for individuals to simply use their intellect, use their political skills to essentially survive. ...
After a certain amount of time, a cycle of renewal is very important. It's important for biological systems, and I think a cycle of renewal is important for something like the Cancer Institute.
Q: What will your responsibilities be at Ivax?
Broder: I don't know the specifics until I go down there [Miami] ... but I've been given a wide latitude, many degrees of freedom. ... One of the things that really attracted me [to Ivax] was that it's at a certain size that I think bodes well for its continued existence, but it doesn't have an ensconced bureaucracy. It has an enormous degree of flexibility and is still free-formed in many ways. Quite frankly, I need a dose of that.