WASHINGTONNational Cancer Institute director Richard D. Klausner, MD, was among the names immediately mentioned as Washington policy wonks and the biomedical community began speculating about who might replace Harold Varmus, MD, as director of the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Varmus resigned the post that he has held for more than 6 years, effective at the end of 1999, to become president and chief executive officer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He will replace Paul A. Marks, MD, who has headed Sloan-Kettering since 1980 and who will continue to conduct research there.
The NIH director, who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with J. Michael Bishop, MD, assumed his post in 1993 with a reputation for brilliant research but little administrative experience. He went on to make major changes at NIH and to prove extremely effective in working with Congress, which has provided substantial funding increases for NIH throughout much of the 1990s.
In his letter of resignation to President Clinton, Dr. Varmus expressed the hope that the achievements of the past several years will encourage you and your successors to consider other active medical scientists to run this extraordinary agency. Implicit in this suggestion is the hope that you will seek to appoint a new NIH director, even at this late stage in your second term, in view of the nonpartisan nature of the position and the need to maintain fully credentialed leadership at a time of such productive growth at the NIH.
However, the NIH directorship has not always been an apolitical appointment, and many potential candidates might reject an offer to lead the agency for less than a year before a new President takes office. Moreover, the partisan wrangling between the White House and Congress could delay Senate approval of a new director until after the 2000 election.
Other Names Mentioned
There is speculation that the President might defer the NIH appointment to the next president. Alternatively, the President might choose to select someone within NIH itself who has good relations with Capitol Hill. Thus, the mention of Dr. Klausner, as well as Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Steven Hyman, MD, director of the National Institute of Mental Health; and Francis Collins, MD, PhD director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, as potential NIH nominees.
Health and Humans Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala praised Dr. Varmus as the leader who brought new energy, vision, and excitement to the worlds greatest scientific institution. Her office announced the Secretary would appoint a committee to assess potential candidates for the NIH post. Upon Dr. Varmus departure, deputy NIH director Ruth Kirschtein, MD, will serve as acting director.