Sally Rockey

Sally Rockey

National Institutes of Health

NIH extramural research chief steps down

Sally Rockey, the longtime research administrator who steers the National Institute of Health’s (NIH’s) Office of Extramural Research, is stepping down after 5 years to head a new agricultural research foundation. Rockey expanded transparency about NIH policies at a time of unprecedented budget pressures on biomedical researchers.

Rockey, an entomologist by training, left the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for NIH a decade ago and was named deputy director for extramural research in 2010. She helped NIH scramble to spend a windfall from the 2009 economic stimulus bill and later dealt with lows such as the 2013 government shutdown that threw grant reviews into disarray. She has looked for ways to spread NIH’s money further at a time when success rates are at record lows and co-chaired a study of the biomedical workforce that recommended stronger mentoring for young scientists and training for alternative careers.

Rockey also launched a blog, Rock Talk, that she says “changed the culture of transparency.” The blog drew kudos for sharing NIH grants data—but also drew withering criticism whenever her office proposed anything controversial. Rockey seems unfazed by the beating she sometimes took online: “You have to have a hard outer shell,” she says. 

NIH Director Francis Collins announced Rockey’s departure today, saying that he “will greatly miss her wisdom, courage, and creativity. … Sally has done an outstanding job of steering the NIH through many challenging times and we will be forever in her debt.” To the biomedical research community, she was refreshingly “frank and open,” says Tony Mazzaschi, senior director for policy and research at the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health in Washington, D.C. “She will be sorely missed.”

Rockey had been interviewing for jobs over the past few months—she was up for president of the University of Nebraska last fall. In mid-September, she will become director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a nonprofit created by the 2014 Farm Bill that has federal funding and will aim to match it with private donations for USDA research. “It’s hard to leave NIH, but I’m going back to my roots in agriculture,” Rockey says.