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Spiegel Stresses Shared Purpose in Guiding Institute

By Robert Bock

Some seek to be leaders; others evolve into them. Relatively new NIDDK director Dr. Allen Spiegel — appointed in November 1999 — politely declined a number of years ago when asked to become that institute's scientific director. He didn't want what he called the "administrative hassles" to take him away from the science he loved. After thinking the offer through, however, he realized he couldn't pass up the chance to make a difference in a unique, new way.

Being scientific director would allow him to view scientific progress from a much larger vantage point. More importantly, though, he could advance science not just from his own lab, but from several fronts.

"I had to give up the immediate satisfaction of my own work to foster the work of others," he said.

Dr. Allen Spiegel

His new role as scientific director was as a kind of buffer — insulating scientific staff from the administrative hassles he had earlier feared, and making sure the investigators got the resources they needed to get their work done.

After 9 years as scientific director, however, Spiegel decided he could do even more to advance science. This time, rather than being asked to take the job, he sought — and was later awarded — the institute's directorship. The new position, however, came with new demands. Along with easing the way for science, he would need to become one of its ambassadors.

Much of his time is now spent meeting with various groups. On the one hand, he must secure the interests of the basic and clinical scientists who drive NIDDK research. On the other, he must address the concerns of those who have the serious diseases under NIDDK's mission — as well as the concerns of their elected representatives.

"The patients are not necessarily knowledgeable — nor should they be — about basic research," Spiegel said. "Justifiably, their concern is with the prevention, treatment and cure for what's making them ill."

As have other institute directors, Spiegel relied heavily on his staff to provide him with the expertise he needed for his new role. He added that he makes it a point to let his staff members know that each of them is a member of a team. No matter their position, each can make a unique contribution in fulfilling the shared goal of uncovering new knowledge that improves health of Americans and people in the rest of the world.

"Even the people not directly involved in research — the secretaries, support staff, the people in the legislative liaison office, the technology transfer officers, the purchasing agents — need to know that what they do is vital to fulfilling this goal," he said.

It follows, he added, that all staffers must have a mutual respect for their coworkers. Similarly, although large organizations are typically hierarchical, respect should flow not only up the chain of command, but down as well.

"No one ever should be treated in a subservient capacity," he said.

This team approach, he explained, applies not only to the internal functioning of NIDDK, but also to how the institute functions within NIH as a whole.

Staff members at different institutes have different areas of expertise, he said. When they collaborate, they can advance farther than they would have by working alone.

As an example of this approach in the intramural research program, Spiegel pointed to the discovery of the MEN 1 tumor suppressor gene, which predisposes those who inherit a mutated version of the gene to a multitude of endocrine gland tumors by early adulthood. The discovery was made possible only through the collaboration of scientists at NIDDK, NCI, the National Center for Biotechnology Information and NHGRI.

He recalled that, at a reception held in his honor when he became NIDDK director, a staffer said he would become the best institute director at NIH. Gently and politely, Spiegel corrected him.

"In terms of a goal, it's not to be the best institute director at NIH, it's for the NIDDK to function most effectively within the context of the overall NIH," he said.

(The author is the press officer for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and a member of the NIH Management Cadre class of 2000. This article resulted from an assignment to study science and leadership at NIH. Information about the cadre program is available at http://mcp.nih.gov/.)


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