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Shalala Visits NIH for Updates, Questions

By Rich McManus

Photos: Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

Visiting an agency she called "the crown jewel of my empire," HHS Secretary Donna Shalala spent most of Oct. 12 at NIH, meeting invited guests at a 15-minute Q&A session in Masur Auditorium, lunching with student trainees at the Cloister, hearing three scientific briefings on promising research, and getting an impressive eyeful of construction progress on the new Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center from a perch on the adjoining Clinical Center's 11th floor.


Outgoing NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus, who a week earlier had made known his plans to leave NIH at the end of the year to take the presidency of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, introduced the secretary to a select gathering in Masur Auditorium. He promised an informal town meeting involving no podium or stage, just Shalala roaming the hall with a cordless microphone.

HHS Secretary Donna Shalala conducts an informal chat with employees in Masur Auditorium while visiting NIH on Oct. 12.

"My last 6 years here have been made more lively and productive because the right person has been sitting in the secretary's chair at HHS," began Varmus, who called his boss Shalala "truly extraordinary and invaluable" to the success of his tenure.

Shalala promised that she would wish Varmus well "at an appropriate future event at which we will thank him for his remarkable dedication and energetic service to this agency — and at an appropriate roast." She repeated her claim that Varmus's NIH directorship is "one of the most important legacies of the Clinton administration, and one of the most important legacies of the century." She said NIH deputy director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein will assume acting directorship once Varmus departs, and promised swift and personal attention to the search for a permanent successor.

Shalala met and lunched with more than a dozen young trainees at the Cloister.

"NIH ought to be seen as an extraordinary institution that enjoys bipartisan support," she said, "so whether some people think it's technically or politically possible or not, we will go forward with the search for a successor. I have already started conversations with the political leadership, and with national scientific leaders. We feel very strongly that there should be a seamlessness in leadership at NIH. I'm sure that Ruth Kirschstein will do a wonderful job in the meantime," she added, pausing to wish Kirschstein a happy birthday, which the crowd applauded.

"I'm going to be quite open, transparent and candid about the results of our search," assured Shalala.

Turning to the topic of the NIH budget, she said, "All of you have done an extraordinary job (managing the $2 billion increase in NIH's budget last year), especially you extramural people. There had been some question, 'Can NIH handle the money? Can they get the money out?' All of you who work in that area have done just a first-rate job, and have done it without lowering our standards of the highest possible quality work. NIH has clearly demonstrated its ability to absorb a major budget increase with no loosening of either administrative or scientific standards. And I refuse to give Harold credit for this," she jibed. "I give all of you total credit."

Shalala talks with NIAID's Dr. Gary Nabel, who was among several NIH scientists who gave the secretary updates on recent work.

Looking toward the FY 2000 budget resolution in Congress, she predicted that President Clinton would veto the appropriations bill covering NIH "for a wide variety of reasons, but not for the NIH number." She forecast a "huge negotiation" between the White House and Capitol Hill that would result in omnibus legislation such as has funded NIH in the past fiscal year. The bill funding NIH was considered late in the budget season for a reason, she hinted: "We're left to the end because we're the best."

Shalala repeated her assurances of a smooth transition of leadership at NIH, calling it "the crown jewel in my empire. I will lead the search process myself. As far as I'm concerned, you're all stars, and I will pay attention accordingly."

During a brief question period, Shalala plugged getting free flu shots in the workplace, commented briefly on modifications in the Office of Protection from Research Risks, and punted a question on the West Nile-like virus recently seen in New York City to NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said much depends on how the bug weathers the first frost and the approach of winter.

"It's so nice to be at NIH because no one asks me a science question," quipped the secretary.

Later in the day, she had lunch with young scientists in training, and got three science updates: on virtual bronchoscopy/colonoscopy from Dr. Ron Summers of the Clinical Center; on AIDS and related vaccine work from Fauci and Dr. Gary Nabel, NIAID; and on a new lymphoma vaccine, from NCI's Dr. Larry Kwak and a patient who has benefited from the therapy.

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