Nature has a brief interview up with Elias Zerhouni, former director of NIH, about his time at NIH. Its very short, but there are some interesting tid-bits. Some highlights:
Nature: Partly as a result of your policy requiring a minimum number of new investigators to be funded, some senior ones who would have been funded are not. How do you respond?
EZ: That’s just bogus. For years the difference in success rates between a young investigator and an established investigator was 5–6%. You can’t say: “Oh, my God, people are ageing!” and then penalize the young investigators. My policy is not to give the young investigator any greater chances of success. My policy is barely evening out the field.
I feel like it’s these established folks who have the political power and who basically penalize and discriminate against new entrants. I see it in the scoring behaviour of the peer-review panels. Every time we try to help the young investigators, the scoring panels penalize them by giving them worse and worse scores. I have the data to show that.
Here we go again with the poor senior investigators losing some funding to the kiddos. I appreciate how Zerhouni shoots it down. I’d love to see all that data, I wonder when they will release it?
Another good one:
Nature: What solution do you see to the NIH financial crisis?
EZ: The solution is that the economic situation has to turn around. I studied the NIH budget over time. And it’s directly correlated with the federal surplus and gross domestic product growth.
But look at the situation today. The economic stimulus package is $500 billion, with $1 billion for science. It’s outrageous. This is the future of our country. So now we’re subsidizing the industries of the past at the expense of investments in the industries of the future. It’s almost an insult, frankly.
In my view this is exactly correct. A new economy must be built around innovation, innovation that can lead to the creation of new high-tech industries that don’t exist today.
Finally, on his successor:
Nature: What should President-elect Obama be looking for in your successor?
EZ: It’s very important right now to have someone who truly understands the reality of life in academic institutions, especially in the context of an economic crisis. I think you absolutely need someone who has had management experience. I don’t think the person should be political. Disease knows no politics.
The other issue here is that that scientists should not be representative of any particular subtrend but should be open to a variety of approaches to science. I would say someone who is sensitive to the younger generations of scientists. I also believe it’s essential to be able to develop excellent relationships with Congress.
The other last but very important point is it has to be a great communicator. Do not become an advocate for one aspect of NIH because you want to be well regarded by your constituency, but represent all constituencies in the most effective way possible.
Nice, so who will this person be?