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NIH Record

Exit Interview
Varmus Leaves NIH with Vision for Enhancing New York Biotech

By Rich McManus

(First of two parts)

A week before he left the directorship of NIH to take over as president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, Dr. Harold Varmus spent 100 minutes in a wide-ranging interview with several journalists in a Bldg. 1 conference room. Though the session was slated to last only an hour, Varmus seemed expansive, energetic and ready for new challenges — all distinguishing facets of his 6 years as NIH director. The session was probably typical for meetings with Varmus; he was blunt, voluble, broadly informed and precise. He wasn't "packing up his things," in Rm. 126, but "reorganizing." He confided at one point that his wife accuses him of lacking neurons for nostalgia; the move to New York City, like the exit from San Francisco that brought him to NIH, is not an occasion for brooding, but a fresh opportunity to exercise his adaptability.

What will you miss about this place?

Biking to work...there are many people I'm going to miss...It's not as though I feel I'm going from the best job in the world to a lousy job. I feel like I'm going from a very good job to another very good job, and with lots of challenges. My wife complains that I don't have too many nostalgia neurons and I don't weep for San Francisco every day. People say, 'How can you possibly leave the Bay area to come here?' Well, you know, weather is not the major thing that influences my life. I'm pretty adaptable. And I see lots of good things about being in San Francisco, being in Washington, and being in New York. Now, people say 'You won't be able to ride to work.' Well, you know, that's probably true...I won't be riding to work most likely, I'll probably go out and ride up the Palisades to Westchester or ride 7-mile circles in Central Park with a nice peloton.

What about rowing?

Rowing's an issue — there is rowing. I've identified a lot of boat houses already. The question is whether I'm going to try to row on the Harlem River out of the Columbia boat house or go get into the New York Athletic Club and row up at the City Island...I'm not going to row as often in New York, very likely, as I row here, but this is not my biggest thing in life. I like it, but it's not as though I'm a world class rower. I'm just a recreational rower, and I'll continue to do some. I'll stay in the Potomac Boat Club — when I come down to Washington in the summers I'll go out in a recreational single, or go rowing with (NIDDK intramural scientist) Ad Bax. So this stuff will still happen, it just won't be as frequent.

Is there anything you anticipate lacking scientifically where you are going that there was an abundance of here?

It's hard for me to say. This is a very, very big scientific community. A lot of my contacts are extramural as well as intramural. I already see lots of folks I'm going to interact with in New York. Arnie Levine (president of the Rockefeller University), one of my closest friends scientifically, is right across the street — he works on problems very similar to the ones I work on.

How do you make the transition from being a scientist to an administrator?

I actually don't think that the mental process is that different. I don't consider myself particularly enmeshed in administration, even here. The issues that have been more interesting to me are policy issues. I generally left to the institute directors the question of how they organized their institutes — that's really up to them...My issues are the broader policy issues — those are subject to the same kinds of rational thought that experiments are.

They're inseparable from the science?

They're inseparable from the science, and the decisionmaking process that goes on has a political component frequently that is a little different than what goes on in science, but still nevertheless it's a matter of weighing the evidence and making some decisions. I frankly have enjoyed that part of it.

Why did you decide to leave now?

Various reasons. One of them is I began to feel it was repetitive...Secondly, there is a timing of one's career. To have gone deeply into my sixties would have, I think, reduced the chances of my getting another really good job, and I did want to have a really good job. Third, this opportunity became available. There have been other things that I've heard about, and occasionally even inquired about and gotten into discussions about, but this is the first thing that seemed to be very appealing, and I really couldn't put this off for another couple of years. I think in an ideal world I probably would have left maybe a year after the next administration, assuming that I could stay on and they didn't ask for my resignation. But my wife was also interested in leaving and then I find the draw of a combination of New York and putting cancer research together with cancer treatment, and being in a strong institution with interesting neighbors like Levine and the Rockefeller, all pretty appealing.

Did preliminary announcements about your new job in the newspaper last summer bother you?

I wish it hadn't appeared — it just made my life a nuisance because we were still in the negotiation phase. It was pretty clear I was very likely to go at that point. Obviously there were lots of rumors. One thing I did learn from this experience is that you can have a million rumors and everyone can say 'I knew,' but no one knows until you say so. And if I hadn't said so, it wouldn't have been. So that was a useful experience.

Did you enjoy NIH's farewell sendoff?

Of course, it was wonderful. I plan to make a little tape of some of the highlights to show at Sloan-Kettering so people can see how we have fun here, and how I expect to interact with the troops.

Can you assess your role, accomplishments and what you've learned as NIH director and NIH scientist in the intramural program?

Obviously I'm going to have both roles at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, in fact my roles there will probably be more obviously divided because here I have one major office in Bldg. 1 and I spend almost all my day in Bldg. 1. I go to my lab for an hour or so a day, but I don't have my office equipment there, so I don't settle in. But at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, my intention is to spend half my day in the hospital executive office and half the day next door at my lab in the Rockefeller Bldg.

With respect to the (NIH) intramural program, I have to say that from the first day I got here, I've really enjoyed being in the intramural program. I did choose wisely, I believe, by placing my lab in one of the nicer buildings — Bldg. 49 and in choosing to be in the midst of investigators in the Human Genome Project...being enmeshed in that network of investigators has been very energizing. And we've had a lot of collaborative arrangements. I've seen though, and heard from many investigators, that they feel that the esprit de corps has risen, and that the seminar programs have improved. A lot of this I don't take credit for — Michael Gottesman has been a tremendous director of intramural research here...I've also enjoyed watching new buildings go up, and clinical investigation prosper, to the point where we're now worried about having too many activities in the Clinical Center rather than too few. That's all been exciting to me, even though my own lab has not been involved in clinical research...I think in general the feeling is that the (intramural) program is incredibly healthy and that the new buildings are going to make it even more so.

I'll point to the Vaccine Center as a particularly exciting accomplishment because we've gotten that center built both physically and intellectually in a very short time. Great people have been brought in here — certainly Gary Nabel's recruitment was a godsend — and the idea that the intramural program can really, as advertised, respond quite quickly to what was perceived to be a national need, namely we weren't doing enough to foster the development of an AIDS vaccine, has been responded to in a way that probably could not happen on this scale anywhere else except at NIH.

Asked about how involved he intends to be in the private sector once he leaves federal service, Varmus said he only wants to be associated, for the time being, with nonprofit ventures. However, he emphasized,

I am interested in encouraging the growth of biotech in New York. One of the things I've spoken about elsewhere in the last couple of months that I think could end up being A) a lot of fun, B) quite stimulating scientifically, C) actually economically beneficial to the state and city of New York is to try to find a location for building a kind of science park or biotech incubator. A place I have in mind, and I haven't been shy about saying this, is the waterfront in Queens. Many of the major institutions in New York that I care about are on the East River — Sloan-Kettering, Cornell, Rockefeller and NYU. Others are not that far away. The streets are crowded, the river is pretty open...There is space over on the riverfront in Queens that is less expensive and more available, and connected to interesting neighborhoods. So I envision this little ferry service running back and forth among these places, and bringing our investigators back and forth (and) seeing not-for-profit and for-profit labs that do genomics and other technology development and pharmaceutical development kinds of things side by side, in a way that would be quite attractive to investors. It would be fun.

In part two of the interview, Varmus gives advice to his successor, reviews disappointments of his tenure, addresses campus security and talks about gene therapy.

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