Zerhouni to step down

As you may have already heard, Alias Zerhouni will step down from his position of the NIH director in October, not waiting for the inauguration of a new Administration. He has been a strong and effective proponent of Open Access and I hope his successor will be as well. The blogospheric responses are all over the spectrum, from very positive to very negative, depending on what aspects of his tenure are the focus. Here are some examples:
Heather Morrison:

Dr. Zerhouni has led the NIH through the long process of the NIH Public Access mandate, first the voluntary policy, then the mandatory one, most recently speaking up forcefully for the NIH and against the absurd Conyers bill. The NIH is the world’s largest medical research funder, and from my viewpoint, this is one of the OA initiatives that has been the subject of the most intense lobbying efforts. Thank you, Dr. Zerhouni. Public access is a great gift to the world; it is appreciated, and you will be missed.

Charles W. Bailey, Jr.:

The National Institutes of Health has announced the resignation of its Director, Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., from that post effective at the end of October 2008. Zerhouni has been a strong open access advocate.

Nick Anthis:

Eliot Zerhouni has overseen the NIH at difficult time, when its budget has been stagnant, leading to a precipitous decline in grant success rates. Two decent accomplishments, however, that occurred during his tenure were ethics reform and the NIH’s new policy on open access to publications funded by its research dollars. The legacy of what’s more commonly touted (at least by Zerhouni) as his major achievement–the NIH Roadmap–remains more dubious, as it is often blamed for siphoning funding away from more basic and higher-risk research.

Revere (also here):

Zerhouni presided over tumultuous years at NIH. The doubling of the NIH budget in the five years prior to 2003 created a pig in a python effect when the budget flatlined and all the new post docs, graduate students, laboratories and research projects stimulated by the doubling were left high and dry. Now the budget is at about what it was in real dollars before the doubling but there are many more mouths to feed and lab benches to maintain. Basic health research is facing its own financial meltdown as existing grants aren’t being renewed and the hands that do the work — the post docs and graduate students — are leaving the field and the research programs they were a part of are withering. This is creating a crisis in leadership in academic science in the US, as the post docs leave for other work and the mid level academics coming up for tenure can’t get their grants renewed and have to leave their institutions to look for other positions and start over or leave research altogether.


Unsurprising since this is a political appointment and all. You did know that, right? More importantly and probably more concerning will be the dance of the IC Directors.
The directors of the NIH Institutes and Centers are slightly less political in nature but there are still allegiances. And the highly activist Directors can have immediate impact on what research grants get funded, etc. So the scientists who are funded by an IC which has a Director resign may want to pay some attention. A long interval of an Acting Director can, conversely, maintain status quo on the funding side but may seriously side-line Congressional advocacy for the IC’s mission.


Given that the Great Zerhouni, like all political appointees, would have been submitting his resignation come January 2009, this is a bit odd he would bail a few months shy, especially since Kessler as FDA director set the precedent of straddling administrations (& parties in power; h/t BB). If the GZ had wanted to stay, it wasn’t out of the question. And with the CTSA Consortium just about to fill up and the T-R01s pouring in next January, I’m a bit surprised. Plus, if he truly wanted as minimal disruption as possible, he would have waited for the next appointed director to be approved by the Senate before stepping down. Someone will have the thankless job of serving as interim director for 6-8 months.

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