William Paul, who oversees one of the largest budgets at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as head of its Office of AIDS Research (OAR), has decided to step down. "The time has now come for me to relinquish the responsibilities of this position and return to laboratory science as part of my commitment to the search for a safe and effective HIV vaccine," wrote Paul in a "dear colleague" letter that will be widely distributed tomorrow.
Paul, who could not be reached for comment, did not detail his reasons for relinquishing the job he has held since February 1994, nor did he give a timetable. But he clearly is not being forced out. "Bill has done a great job and his departure is a real loss, but I am grateful to him for serving as long as he has," remarked NIH Director Harold Varmus in response to a query from ScienceNOW.
When Paul took over OAR, Congress had just revamped the office, giving it broad powers to oversee NIH's entire AIDS budget, which now stands at $1.5 billion. As part of the congressional mandate, Paul launched an ambitious review of the mammoth program, which was conducted by more than 100 extramural researchers led by Princeton University's Arnold Levine. The gargantuan "Levine Report," which was released in July 1996, "provides a blueprint for restructuring the NIH AIDS science program," as Paul notes in his letter to colleagues.
Paul, a pre-eminent immunologist, also has attempted to bring more attention and money to AIDS vaccine research. One of his ideas, an intramural vaccine research center at NIH, won so much support that President Bill Clinton announced its formation in a speech last May.
Varmus says NIH now is putting together a "high profile" search committee and "will advertise widely, hoping to find someone with talents approaching Bill's to continue his good work." Varmus adds that he hopes to find a new director within 6 months, so that the person will be ready to testify at next year's congressional appropriations hearings. No candidates for the job are yet on the radar screen.