Harold Varmus in 2011

Credit: NIH

Outgoing U.S. cancer chief reflects on his record, what’s next

Late yesterday afternoon, as Washington, D.C., was readying to shut down for a snowstorm, National Cancer Institute (NCI) chief and Nobel Prize–winning cancer biologist Harold Varmus announced that he is stepping down at the end of this month. Although few even on his own staff were expecting the news, it was not a big surprise coming less than 2 years before the end of the Obama administration, when many presidential appointees leave for their next job.

In a resignation letter to the research community, Varmus decried the harsh budget climate he has faced and pointed to a list of accomplishments, from creating an NCI center for global health to launching a project to find drugs targeting RAS, an important cell signaling pathway in cancer. “I think he’s done a wonderful job under difficult circumstances,” says cancer biologist Tyler Jacks of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and chair of NCI’s main advisory board. “He brought tremendous scientific credibility to the position. And he managed to do some new and creative things.” NCI Deputy Director Douglas Lowy will serve as acting director.

In a phone interview this morning as the first snowflakes began to fall, Varmus reflected on his time at NCI and what he will do when he returns full time to New York City. (He has been commuting from his home there to NCI in Bethesda, Maryland.) He will run a “modestly sized” lab at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, Varmus wrote in his letter, as well as serve as an adviser to its dean, and work with the New York Genome Center.

Varmus told ScienceInsider he expected all along to stay at NCI about 5 years, which he would have reached in July. The recent announcement of President Barack Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, which includes a $70 million cancer genomics and clinical trials effort at NCI, gave him a “sense of completion.” He takes pride not only in starting new initiatives, but also “keeping spirits up” in the extramural community by holding NCI grant numbers stable and being “transparent” about how the institute made funding decisions. “I think we did a pretty good job during this 5 years of fiscal stagnation and loss of keeping things going,” he says.

Varmus also pushed for controversial changes he sees as necessary to help the research workforce “adjust” to budgets that aren’t expected to grow. Instead of having investigators sum up their record with a list of papers in their biosketch, he introduced a new section, a narrative describing one’s key accomplishments. That format has long been used by the biomedical research nonprofit Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The revised biosketch is now being phased in across NIH, despite howls of protest that it burdens grant reviewers and lets scientists inflate the importance of their work. Another effort copied from HHMI is a new 7-year NCI award based on an investigator’s track record rather than a particular project. That has brought criticism that it will favor older researchers.

In his resignation letter, Varmus introduces a new award for staff scientists. He says the idea is to offer salary support and independence to scientists who hold less high-profile but essential jobs, such as managing a core facility or doing informatics within a principal investigator’s lab. Some research leaders have suggested that labs should rely more on staff scientists and less on the cheap labor of graduate students and postdocs. But Varmus says the award should start at a “small scale” because it is hard to anticipate how it will “change the structure” of a lab and its workforce. “Fixing the system is not simple. There are so many moving parts,” he says.

Varmus says NCI is still “discussing” another possible new award that would allow senior scientists to wind down their labs. When the NIH director’s office recently floated the idea of such an “emeritus” award, it drew a slew of harsh comments; some called it an entitlement for aging scientists, and others viewed it as age discrimination.

Giving some scientists “an incentive to finish up would be a good thing,” Varmus says. But the problem is not so much investigators over 65 or 70, but the dearth of those with independent labs in their 30s, he says. Moreover, NIH “can’t require people to quit,” he notes.

His own situation illustrates why it doesn’t make sense to push older scientists out of the lab en masse, he adds. At 75, he plans to move his small lung cancer biology lab at NIH to New York City and expand its staff. Although Cornell is giving him startup funds, he expects to apply for grants. At NIH, his lab “just got reviewed and I did well,” Varmus says. “I don’t believe in making arithmetic judgments,” he adds. “I should be judged by what I do.” And in the future, he adds, “If things aren’t going well, I’ll quit.”

*Correction, 6 March, 12:32 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Varmus introduced the NIH biosketch; instead he proposed a new section within the existing biosketch.