NIH head to step down

| September 26, 2008

The New York Times (9/25, A22, Harris) reports that Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., "director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who shook up the agency when he barred scientists from consulting for drugmakers, announced that he would leave at the end of October." That "ban was unpopular among many agency scientists, who said it would make recruiting top scientists difficult. But, in the wake of continuing Congressional investigations, a growing number of medical schools and medical groups are now cracking down on the outside consulting relationships of their faculty and staff members." At NIH, Dr. Zerhouni "pushed scientists to focus more on patient care and less on basic research, and he forced the agency’s independent institutes to cooperate on common projects," even as he "faced a stagnant budget that has curtailed research around the country and demoralized scientists." Although Dr. Zerhouni "told Congress that the President’s policy" on stem-cell research "was hindering scientific progress," his continued support from "the White House despite this public disagreement is noteworthy."

"Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt praised Zerhouni in a statement," The Hill (9/25, Young) adds. "Elias has been a powerful voice for the medical research community as the head of NIH," Leavitt said. Dr. Zerhouni "rejected characterizing his departure as a resignation." He would have had to resign when the next President takes office, and he "explained that he wanted to depart before then, so Bush’s successor has to act quickly to replace him." He pointed out that "President Bush is ‘completely supportive, and understands’ why he is leaving."

Bloomberg News (9/25, Lauerman, Larkin) quotes White House press secretary Dana Perino as saying that, during Dr. Zerhouni’s "tenure, the NIH has accomplished groundbreaking work in the area of genetic research, including mapping the human genome, and also helping to ensure the passage of genetic non-discrimination legislation."

CQ (9/25, Reichard) points out that Dr. Zerhouni "generally won raves on Capitol Hill for his stewardship of the medical research agency." He is "perhaps best known for his articulate advocacy of expanded funding for NIH, and his willingness to buck the Bush administration’s Aug. 9, 2001, policy limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research." While the ban held, "his descriptions of the exploding potential of medicine based on discoveries of the genetic mechanisms underlying disease built up a reservoir of goodwill toward NIH among lawmakers," as well as "a strong sense of the agency’s potential to produce medical breakthroughs with additional funding."

According to the AP (9/24, Neergaard), "Despite an era when NIH’s budget seldom kept up with inflation, behind the scenes" Dr. Zerhouni "engineered a major reorganization of the behemoth $29.5 billion agency designed to speed how basic science discoveries are turned into treatments — and to spur creative research ideas that might otherwise languish." The UPI (9/25), the National Journal (9/24, Munro), Modern Healthcare (9/25, Lubell), MedPage Today (9/24, Peck), and the GenomeWeb Daily News (9/24) also covered the story.

Category: Government

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