Definitely Not Retirement, Says Varmus

Harold Varmus announced this morning that he’ll soon be leaving his job as president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Later in the day, he spoke to Science and said the move shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been “reading the tea leaves.” From the start, he was clear that he’d keep the job for 10 years, and the end of that decade has come. “This is definitely not retirement,” he says. Here are some excerpts from the conversation, edited for brevity:

Q: What are some of the highlights from your years heading up Sloan-Kettering?  What are you most proud of?

H.V.: This is not a time for valedictories—I don’t want people to start summing it up and saying what we’ve done. When I’m actually leaving as president, then that might be a good time to sum it up. Thematically, what I’ve been trying to do is what everyone else is trying to do: bring the clinical and research enterprises together; recruiting great people; raising a lot of money that allows us to build new programs. We’ve [been] slowed down by the economic crunch. [But] we’ve hired a lot of great people—this place has been transformed as an institution that does cancer research across the board.Q: What’s the value of big cancer centers like Sloan-Kettering these days?

H.V.: There’s good reason to have places that have a strong research component and a very big patient-care responsibility, especially now. I’ve been in this business, I hate to say it, about 40 years. In the beginning, when I was working on chicken retroviruses, the connection between the clinic and what I did was zero. Now everything we do feels clinically relevant. I’ve tried to build our research across the board, but especially where basic research meets the patient.

Q: Do you think cancer genomics, your research area, is moving slowly?

The institution was doing no genomics when I got here—now we have a computational biology program, an informatics core, at least three genome cores. These tests are improving the way we take care of cancer patients—I think it’s starting to happen.

Q: What are you planning next?

I’m co-chair of PCAST [President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology], I’m the chair of the Public Library of Science, I chair an advisory committee for the Gates Foundation, and I have an active lab which I try to pay attention to. I’m a busy guy without the presidency. I’m perfectly happy [with what I’m doing]. But life is hard to predict.
Nobody thinks I’m sick or old, so that’s good news. I’ve done this job long enough, and now someone else should do it.