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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Zerhouni will step down from the NIH next month

Elias A. Zerhouni to End Tenure as Director of the National Institutes of Health, a press release from the NIH, September 24, 2008.  Excerpt:

Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., the director of the National Institutes of Health, today announced his plans to step down at the end of October 2008 to pursue writing projects and explore other professional opportunities.

Dr. Zerhouni, a physician scientist and world-renowned leader in radiology research, has served as NIH director since May 2002. He led the agency through a challenging period that required innovative solutions to transform basic and clinical research into tangible benefits for patients and their families. One of the hallmarks of his tenure is the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, launched in 2003, after extensive consultations with the scientific community....

Key Accomplishments of Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. ...

[PS:  I'm including only two of the 22 sections.]

Molecular Libraries
The NIH Roadmap identified one key "new pathway": the need for molecular libraries. The Molecular Libraries initiative resulted in development of a nationwide consortium of 10 small molecule screening centers; including NIH; a database, PubChem; and new tools and technologies to better serve investigative needs. PubChem provides free access to discoveries about the chemical structures and biological activities of small molecules....The Molecular Small Molecule Repository currently contains over 300,000 small molecules....

Public Access to NIH-funded Published Research
In February 2005, Dr. Zerhouni announced an unprecedented policy designed to expand and accelerate public access to published articles resulting from NIH-funded research. The policy was the first of its kind and called on scientists to release manuscripts from research supported by NIH as soon as possible, and within 12 months of publication. Publications are made available in a web-based archive managed by the National Library of Medicine. At a time when demand for such information is on a steady rise, the online archive increases the public's access to health-related publications....


  • This is big.  Elias Zerhouni has headed the NIH through both its voluntary and mandatory OA policies.  He once approved the voluntary policy, but changed his mind and testified before Congress three times on the need for an OA mandate.  He's heard all the publisher arguments and answers them forcefully.  He's a strong friend OA and will be missed.
  • He'll leave next month, well before the fate of the Conyers bill is settled.  But Congress has heard from him on the issue --his most recent testimony was at the September 11 hearing on the bill-- and he may be available in the future to testify as a private citizen with deep knowledge of the issue and long institutional memory. 
  • Whether his retirement is a setback for OA will depend on who succeeds him.  President Bush will choose his successor unless the financial crisis, the war, and the election postpone the appointment long enough to hand it off to Bush's own successor.  Bush had minor objections to the NIH OA mandate, but they were not strong enough to prevent him from signing it into law.  In any case, the other issues facing this very large agency will dwarf the access policy in the selection of the next Director, and Zerhouni himself was a Bush appointee.  Moreover, it seems to me that scientists with the knowledge and policy background to run the NIH tend to support public access to publicly-funded research.  One of Zerhouni's predecessors as NIH Director was Harold Varmus (1993-1999). 
  • Elias Zerhouni in July 2004:  "The public needs to have access to what they've paid for....The status quo just can't stand."
  • Elias Zerhouni in February 2005:  "Scientists have a right to see the results of their work disseminated as quickly and broadly as possible, and NIH is committed to helping our scientists exercise this right. We urge publishers to work closely with authors in implementing this policy."
  • Elias Zerhouni in March 2007:  "We need to make [public access] a condition of federal fund granting."
  • More later, as this unfolds.

Update (9/25/08).  Here's some background, especially to the "why now?" question.

From Jeffrey Young at The Hill:

...Zerhouni...told the president of his plans “several weeks” ago....

As a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed official, Zerhouni would have had to resign when the next president takes office. He explained that he wanted to depart before then so Bush’s successor has to act quickly to replace him.

“I felt it would be in the best interests of the NIH for me to leave before the election,” Zerhouni said. With a vacancy in the directorship, he explained, when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) wins the presidential election in November, he would be more inclined to name a replacement, he said.

“I would want people to focus on NIH as early and as soon as possible after the election,” Zerhouni said, rather than assume the agency is in good hands already. Zerhouni said he has no interest in remaining in office under the next administration.

Zerhouni stated that “there’s no precipitating event” that led to his decision to vacate his position and rejected characterizing his departure as a resignation. “It’s just basically stepping down at the right time,” he said. “I’ve always said I would end my tenure at this time." ...

The NIH’s efforts to increase public access to government-funded research...met with resistance from medical journal publishers and some researchers. As with his ethics reforms, Zerhouni said these steps were necessary to restore public trust in the agency....

From Jocelyn Kaiser at Science Magazine:

...Zerhouni told reporters today that his departure follows "the natural cycle of tenures for this position," which are historically held for about 6 years. He wanted to step down before the November presidential election so that the next Administration can "focus on NIH as early and as soon as possible," he said. Although he has been considered for the presidency of JHU, he does not have a job lined up and said he wanted to "take some time out." President George W. Bush has not yet named an acting NIH director, but Zerhouni said he expects it will be NIH's current deputy director, Raynard Kington....

Update (9/27/08).  Also see the statement from Genetic Alliance.  Excerpt:

...Earlier this month, Dr. Zerhouni rallied for more open health systems; defending the public's right to view the results of taxpayer-funded research as provided by the NIH Public Access Policy during a legislative hearing on H.R. 6845, the 'Fair Copyright in Research Works Act.' The NIH policy is essential to translating biomedical research into clinical results. Individuals, families and healthcare providers now have open access to publicly funded research, and this achievement will be a hallmark of Dr. Zerhouni's tenure....

Update (10/9/08). Also see Andrew Albanese's story in Library Journal.