President Barack Obama today announced that he plans to appoint Nobel Prize–winning molecular biologist Harold Varmus director of the $5.1 billion National Cancer Institute. Varmus, now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City, will replace current NCI Director John Niederhuber, a Bush appointee, who expects to remain at NCI as an intramural researcher.
The choice is not a surprise: Varmus’s appointment has been rumored for weeks, although in early March he told Science that the idea was "far-fetched." (He had announced in January that he would soon step down as MSKCC president.) But it is a surprise that Varmus, age 70, who directed the entire National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1993 to 1999, would return to head the largest of its 27 institutes. Varmus, who was part of an informal search committee for NCI director that was having trouble finding an interested candidate, said the idea seemed "crazy" when a close friend suggested it, but he changed his mind: "Running the world's largest research program in cancer at a time when cancer research has never been more interesting seemed like a pretty good thing to do in the next several years."
NIH Director Francis Collins, who once worked under Varmus as head of the genome institute, said in a statement: “It is exhilarating and gratifying to have my good friend and colleague back at NIH. ... Harold brings unmatched expertise at all levels.”
Cancer researchers also praised the choice. Varmus is "more qualified for this position than anyone else in the universe," says cancer geneticist Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. "It's a spectacular coup on the part of the government," said cancer biologist Robert Weinberg of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Edward Benz, director of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, says Varmus's "impeccable credentials" as a basic scientist, his time at NIH, and his decade of directing a cancer center give him "the ideal combination of experience."
Varmus shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Michael Bishop for using retroviruses to understand cancer-causing genes. During a tenure at NIH that included the start of a 5-year budget doubling, he cultivated the image of a rumpled academic who biked to work. At Sloan-Kettering, he oversaw an expansion of translational research programs and made key recruits. After endorsing Obama as a candidate in 2008 and advising the campaign, Varmus was named co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2009.
Varmus’s return to government will mean a sharp pay cut for him from the $2.7 million he was reportedly earning at Sloan Kettering to an NIH salary that usually tops out around $300,000. The appointment does not require Senate confirmation. Varmus, bringing a lab with him, expects to start at NCI in mid-July.
See the 21 May print issue of Science for a longer version of this story.