Like a lot of other research scientists supported by NIH I got an email yesterday from NIH Director Elias Zerhouni announcing his intention to leave his position “to devote much of my attention to writing.” At least it wasn’t the hackneyed “to spend more time with my family.” While Zerhouni won’t actually leave until the end of next month, the federal health research establishment is essentially leaderless, awaiting the next administration. The main public health institute within the NIH system, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has been under “Acting” (although quite capable) for many months after its previous Director resigned under fire (see here, here, here, here and here). That scandal reached all the way to Director Zerhouni’s office, although Zerhouni himself left no fingerprints. In any event, his departure is not a surprise. It was widely predicted he would resign over the summer in time to take an academic job. His plans to “devote time to writing” and the timing of the announcement after the start of the academic year suggest he wasn’t able to secure a top level academic position.
Zerhouni presided over tumultuous years at NIH. The doubling of the NIH budget in the five years prior to 2003 created a pig in a python effect when the budget flatlined and all the new post docs, graduate students, laboratories and research projects stimulated by the doubling were left high and dry. Now the budget is at about what it was in real dollars before the doubling but there are many more mouths to feed and lab benches to maintain. Basic health research is facing its own financial meltdown as existing grants aren’t being renewed and the hands that do the work — the post docs and graduate students — are leaving the field and the research programs they were a part of are withering. This is creating a crisis in leadership in academic science in the US, as the post docs leave for other work and the mid level academics coming up for tenure can’t get their grants renewed and have to leave their institutions to look for other positions and start over or leave research altogether.
The result will be continued erosion of US leadership in the basic sciences. The current financial crisis and wasteful and atrocious war in Iraq have squandered enormous quantities of federal resources, a small fraction of which could have strengthened the kind of science that would benefit everyone. Instead we will see the basic science foundation of the country weakened.
Zerhouni is getting out while the getting is good.