New NIH head talks budget, priorities

Starting this month, a former physician took on the unenviable task of serving as the interim-director of the National Institutes of Health, assuming the reins from linkurl:Elias Zerhouni.;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/13166/ linkurl:Raynard Kington,;http://www.nih.gov/about/director/index.htm who will be acting NIH director until President-elect linkurl:Barack Obama;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/21033/ appoints a new director, served as Zerhouni's linkurl:deputy di

Bob Grant
Bob Grant

Bob Grant is Editor in Chief of The Scientist, where he started in 2007 as a Staff Writer.

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Nov 9, 2008
Starting this month, a former physician took on the unenviable task of serving as the interim-director of the National Institutes of Health, assuming the reins from linkurl:Elias Zerhouni.;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/13166/ linkurl:Raynard Kington,;http://www.nih.gov/about/director/index.htm who will be acting NIH director until President-elect linkurl:Barack Obama;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/21033/ appoints a new director, served as Zerhouni's linkurl:deputy director;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55167/ since 2003, and before that, as associate director of NIH for behavioral and social sciences research. __The Scientist__ spoke with Kington about the challenges of running NIH in an economic downturn and what he expects as we enter the Obama presidency. __The Scientist__ - What do you think can be done at this point to get the linkurl:NIH's budget;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/49077/ back to where a lot of scientists say it should be? __Raynard Kington__ - I think [Zerhouni] made a good point that science isn't one of these things where you can just turn off the spigot and everything will just wait until...
the reins from linkurl:Elias Zerhouni.;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/13166/ linkurl:Raynard Kington,;http://www.nih.gov/about/director/index.htm who will be acting NIH director until President-elect linkurl:Barack Obama;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/21033/ appoints a new director, served as Zerhouni's linkurl:deputy director;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55167/ since 2003, and before that, as associate director of NIH for behavioral and social sciences research. __The Scientist__ spoke with Kington about the challenges of running NIH in an economic downturn and what he expects as we enter the Obama presidency. __The Scientist__ - What do you think can be done at this point to get the linkurl:NIH's budget;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/49077/ back to where a lot of scientists say it should be? __Raynard Kington__ - I think [Zerhouni] made a good point that science isn't one of these things where you can just turn off the spigot and everything will just wait until good times come back.... As difficult as it may be, I think as a country it would be unwise to continue on the path that we are. __TS__ - If Dr. Zerhouni was so convincing in getting out the message that funding biomedical research was essential not just to human health, but to the economy at large, what do you think the impediment was? __RK__ - I think that the message was getting through, but it was a reflection of the horrible economic times. And the fact is that we didn't get a reduction, which some parts of the federal government did see. And there were some modest increases at several points in time. They were modest, but they wouldn't have come at all if Elias hadn't been out there aggressively making this message with Congress and the entire federal government. Believe me, things could have been far worse than what actually happened. Now, I still think that the broader scientific community is still catching up with this message, and I think that you'll see a much more sophisticated discussion occurring about the implications of investing in the biomedical and behavioral research infrastructure of this country. I think that this idea that the research community will just go out and tell Congress, "We want X percent raise in funding of Y," is just not an effective argument these days. I think that we're going to have to make a stronger argument about why this investment is smart. __TS__ - What's your response then to people who say that the economy is such that while it's nice to fund research into basic biology, right now there are more pressing needs? __RK__ - We know there are pressing needs, but we also have an obligation to future generations. [Zerhouni] would use the metaphor of seed corn. Even in tough times, if you eat all of your seed corn, then you're ruling out any possibility for a sustainable future. And we don't think that's a smart decision. If investments aren't made now, we are closing the door the opportunity of the future. These are investments for the future. __TS__ - As you said, everyone at NIH knows that efficiencies are going to have to be made, and people are going to have to think about the best way to do things in this environment. Do you think that's going to happen agency-wide, or are there going to be some particular portions of the agency, some particular institutes, that are concentrated on more than others? __RK__ - I think it will happen throughout the entire agency. I can assure that at every level of this agency, the managers and the scientists are thinking hard about how we can exploit any efficiency that we can find. This isn't new. We think that we've always been a pretty well-run organization, but clearly at times of tightened budgets, the incentive is even greater to find the maximum efficiencies. So I think that it's natural. I think it's happening all over the federal government. And that's good. __TS__ - With such a strong focus on the budget and what's going to happen in this current economic environment, is there a danger that some of those issues at NIH that aren't as directly linked to the budget - such as linkurl:financial conflicts of interest;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54183/ among extramural grantees - might fall by the wayside? How do we keep the focus on important issues that aren't necessarily tied to the budget in this sort of climate? __RK__ - I assure you that we can handle many initiatives at the same time, and that's not one that will get dropped with the focus on the budget. __TS__ - When do you think we might see some action in terms of policy changes on that? __RK__ - There's a pretty structured process for regulatory change. We've already begun that process, and the proposal for opening up is being vetted as we speak. So we hope that in the near future we'll be able to announce the start of a formal opening up of that process. __TS__ - What are some of the other issues that you're keeping tabs on while focusing on finances and budget? __RK__ - We continue to implement the public access policy. We're also looking really closely at this issue of leadership development - How can we find the best people and provide opportunities for them to work at NIH in particular? We are looking at some issues in how we can strengthen the intramural research program. We're looking at lots of ongoing issues. We won't have a deficit of things to think about. __TS__ - Do you have a sense of who might be coming into the linkurl:Health and Human Services secretary;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55173/ position or who you'd like to see in that position as we transition into a new administration? __RK__ - We want a good leader. __TS__ - Whose name is...? __RK__ - We're ready and waiting for the transition team to come to us, and we will support whoever is chosen by the president-elect to run the agency and to run the department. __TS__ - In terms of your position, do you have any desire to stay on? Do you have any expectation to stay on as NIH director as the administration changes hands? __RK__ - I think there are many many better qualified people to serve as director of the agency. So I have no doubt that there will be a good choice, and I don't mean to sound falsely modest, but there are lots of good people out there, and I have every belief that the president-elect's team will choose a good person to run this agency. __TS__ - It sounds like you're predicting that there will be a new NIH director come January or sometime next year. What would your plans be at that point? __RK__ - We understand that the president-elect's team has worked really hard to accelerate the process for appointment, so we think that's great. We're just waiting for the new leadership, and I will serve at the pleasure of that new leader.

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