Able to pursue open-ended research without relentless grant deadlines, some scientists who work directly for the National Institutes of Health joke that NIH stands for "nerds in heaven." But the main NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and its other intramural research sites are also known as stodgy places where the scientific management, mostly white men, tends to stay in place for decades. Now, NIH is aiming to shake up its intramural program, the largest collection of biomedical researchers in the world, by imposing term limits on midlevel leadership positions.
Starting next year, the 272 lab and branch chiefs who oversee NIH's intramural research will be limited to 12-year terms. The policy, now being refined by the directors of NIH's 23 institutes with in-house science programs, means up to half of the chiefs will turn over in the next 5 years, says Michael Gottesman, NIH's deputy director for intramural research. "We see this as an opportunity for diversity in the leadership at NIH, especially gender and ethnic diversity," says Hannah Valantine, NIH's chief officer for scientific workforce diversity.
The changes are roiling the campus, with some grumbling they will have little impact and others questioning whether good leaders should automatically be replaced. "The appointment of more women … could be a plus, but the ‘coin of the realm’ still remains scientific excellence and productivity," says Malcolm Martin, who has headed a lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 37 years.
At most institutes, NIH's intramural lab and branch chiefs oversee several labs or groups. Although they don't control researchers' budgets directly, they handle administrative matters, mentoring, and recruitment. Chiefs overseeing clinical studies and shared facilities hold even more sway. "These are fiefdoms where [chiefs have] power and resources," Valantine says.
Many chiefs (54 of 272) have served at least 20 years, and 17 for more than 30 years, Gottesman says. Although 26% are women—comparable to the 24% women among all NIH tenured researchers—men tend to lead larger programs. Because of the lack of turnover, "People feel like there's no way they'll ever have a leadership position," says Gisela Storz, chair of NIH's equity committee, which pushed for the changes. "And trainees need to see people in those positions who look like them."
Under the draft policy released in January, the chiefs will have to step down after at most three 4-year terms. The positions that become vacant will be filled through "open and transparent processes," the draft policy states. While some institutes already do that, at others, the scientific director overseeing the intramural program "plucks an heir apparent" from internal staff, Storz says.
To help build the pipeline, NIH will rely on a recently launched program aimed at recruiting more tenure-track female and minority faculty. In the long term, NIH hopes its intramural leadership will more closely reflect that women now earn more than 50% of new Ph.D. degrees in the biological sciences, Valantine says.
Individual institutes are now figuring out how to enact the term limits "in a way that's not disruptive," Gottesman says. Some chiefs may be exempt, he says, if a change would have "serious consequences" for science programs, for example because there is no pool of candidates for the job.
One former NIH veteran is skeptical. "How much have they thought this through?" asks Story Landis, who was scientific director and later director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. She questions why NIH would want to replace a midcareer chief doing a stellar job. And, she wonders, will the job searches truly be open? Will women get the training they need to move into leadership positions?
Others point out that NIH's scientific directors—seven of whom are now women—are the true feudal lords, and the new policy does not affect them. Gottesman has held his job for 25 years.
But he and the scientific directors he oversees may be next: NIH term limits could "move up to other kinds of leadership," Valantine says.