Zerhouni & the NIH

From a peice in the latest issue of Nature:

But this year, as three years of flat budgets begin to bite, Zerhouni's tenure at the NIH is being openly attacked by some scientists. The focus of their ire is his 'Roadmap', a set of activities that run across different NIH institutes and attempt to implement Zerhouni's vision for the agency. The critics say that the Roadmap isn't working and is diverting resources and attention from basic scientific research.

As the article states, it's hard to become the head of the NIH after such a rapid financial expansion. Harold Varmus was a tough act to follow. Two questions come up, how to increase funding (or at least keep up with inflation), and how to allocate the money.

From another article in Nature:

On 6 April, Elias Zerhouni spent the morning on Capitol Hill, telling Congress to invest more money in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) -- for the good of the country and its research enterprise. But even as he was making his case, scientists across the continent were e-mailing each other an angry editorial that blames Zerhouni for leading the NIH in the wrong direction.

Published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, and penned by the journal's editor-in-chief Andrew Marks (A. R. Marks J. Clin. Invest. 116, 844; 2006), the piece hits Zerhouni in a sensitive spot. "The current state of the NIH," writes Marks, "prompts me to say to its director, Dr Elias Zerhouni: 'Obviously you are not a scientist'"

(He's a radiologist.) So what is the roadmap? Briefly:

Zerhouni's vision of streamlining the agency's management and sharpening its focus on clinical, interdisciplinary and technology-driven research has upset others, who say this is distracting the agency from what it has always done well: fund basic research.

Yes it's a radiologists' roadmap. With the underachievement of the small molecule and other drug related screens, academia is realizing that these types of technologies are best left to Big Pharma companies. And there is the scandal ...

In January 2004, Congress began investigating conflicts of interest for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) investigators who consulted for private companies.

The NIH director Elias Zerhouni initially tried to take a moderate approach. But Congressional outrage grew in 2004; in one particularly embarrassing moment, Zerhouni was confronted with cancelled cheques showing that NIH scientists had accepted consulting payments that they hadn't revealed to their bosses. In February 2005, Zerhouni announced stringent restrictions -- later tempered -- for NIH employees on consulting and investing in biomedical arenas.

Many employees felt stung by the investigations, and are dismayed at the increasing paperwork and restrictions imposed on the agency. Some blame Zerhouni. "It's hard to figure out what are his decisions and what are the administration's decisions," says one NIH employee, adding, "Internally, morale is a problem."

What will happen to Zerhouni? Stay tuned ...


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