Zerhouni told a group of reporters in a conference call this morning that his departure is timed to synchronize with the end of the current White House administration and that he does not consider the move to be a resignation.
“I have to tell you it is with mixed emotions that I move on,” Zerhouni said, from what he described as “truly the crown jewel” of research in the world.
Zerhouni said that his writing plans may touch on his experiences as head of NIH during “a time of real transition.”
During the call, Zerhouni discussed the increasing importance of genomics across NIH during his tenure, and said the National Human Genome Research Institute should remain "at the vanguard of genomics research.”
The challenge for NHGRI has been the challenge of any institute that is created for "one specific project” such as sequencing the human genome, he told reporters.
“Now that the genome is done, what do we do now?,” he said was the question at NHGRI several years back.
But, today, he said, “genomics is present in every institute.”
The Human Haplotype Map program was “highly criticized” before it started, Zerhouni explained, “but now we have discovered almost 1,500 new pathways to diseases … in a remarkable explosion” that has reshaped medical research.
He maintained that the traction gained in genomics research recently is in part due to the press during his administration for ambitious research about the basics of biology.
He said, for example, that the Human Epigenome Project and the Human Microbiome Project “would not have happened” without the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, which Zerhouni helped launch as director.
We now know, he added, that “if you don’t understand epigenomics, you can’t understand genomics.”
The Roadmap program has focused on supporting new clinical research efforts and cutting-edge technologies, and on developing new diagnostic and treatment efforts. Zerhouni once described the Roadmap program as a necessary response to “an era of rapid convergence” and “emerging opportunities in the sciences,” and he said it gives NIH the chance to “incubate new ideas.”
“To me, NHGRI needs to continue as the cutting edge of new ideas, bold ideas, often controversial but often successful,” the director continued.
“As the NIH’s 15th director, Dr. Elias Zerhouni laid the groundwork for achieving a transformative vision of a personalized, predictive, preemptive, and participatory healthcare system,” CEO of the non-profit Association of American Medical Colleges, Darrell Kirch, said in a statement.
“Since his appointment in 2002, Dr. Zerhouni has tackled the dual challenges of leading the NIH during the final years of the [funding] doubling and unprecedented investment in research, and the difficult years that followed as the agency experienced consistently flat funding,” Kirch continued.
As the budget at NIH stalled against the rising costs of biomedical inflation, Zerhouni pressed publicly for increased funding for NIH. He told the science community in 2006 he was “most deeply troubled” by the trend.
In a recent article in Science, Zerhouni wrote that stalled federal funding was “eroding the growth of NIH at a time when opportunities for scientific progress and advances in human health have never been greater.”
He also said that the bioscience community must “do a better job in demonstrating our value to society,” if it wants to maintain importance to those holding the federal purse-strings.
In 2005, he started the Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives, which is aimed at transforming the methods NIH uses to identify and fund vanguard areas of research.
Zerhouni said his only regret about his time as NIH director was that he served during circumstances including “budget challenges and war.”