NIH Director Bows Out

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced today that he will be leaving the government at the end of December after 6 years at NIH's helm. He will become president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, an institution that describes itself as "the world's oldest and largest private institution devoted to prevention, patient care, research, and education in cancer." The move will put Varmus and his wife Constance Casey, a Newhouse News Service correspondent, closer to their two sons, who live in New York.

Varmus's widely anticipated decision is consistent with a comment he made shortly after arriving at NIH in 1993--that he thought 6 years' service would be "about right." In a 7 October letter to President Clinton, Varmus writes, "I take this step with mixed emotions--with regrets about leaving a job I have greatly enjoyed ... and with excitement about assuming new and different responsibilities."

"In leaving," Varmus adds, "I am conscious of the risks you assumed in 1993 when you endorsed [Secretary of Health and Human Services] Donna Shalala's recommendation to appoint me to direct an organization as complex as the NIH, despite my lack of administrative experience. I hope that the achievements of the past several years will encourage you and your successors to consider other active medical scientists to run this extraordinary agency."

During his tenure, NIH's overall budget grew from around $11 billion to more than $16 billion, and the "success rate" for approved research grant applications that actually win funding increased from around 24% to nearly 33%.

In a prepared statement, Shalala praised Varmus for "making a great institution extraordinary," adding that the "solid bipartisan support NIH now enjoys is due in large part to his leadership." HHS had no information on the Administration's plans to appoint a new NIH director.