In a conference call with reporters, Dr. Zerhouni said he planned to write about his time at the health agencies before accepting another job.
“I know there’s speculation that I’m going back to Johns Hopkins,” Dr. Zerhouni said. “That’s not been decided by me at all. I want to finish here, take a few weeks, maybe write a bit and evaluate what I want to do next.”
One of the few prominent Arab-Americans in the Bush administration, Dr. Zerhouni is an Algerian immigrant who came to this country more than 30 years ago with $369 in his pocket and became a multimillionaire after inventing numerous devices as a radiologist at Johns Hopkins University.
Dr. James Thrall, chairman of the radiology department at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that Dr. Zerhouni got the health institutes to focus “on the big problems, big issues and big opportunities.”
“Uniquely among all the recent people to hold that position, he got the battleship to turn in a different direction,” Dr. Thrall said of Dr. Zerhouni.
The most controversial part of Dr. Zerhouni’s tenure was a years-long Congressional investigation of agency scientists who mixed their government research positions with private consulting deals. Dr. Zerhouni decided in 2005 to ban agency scientists from consulting for drug and device companies.
The ban was unpopular among many agency scientists, who said it would make recruiting top scientists difficult. But in the wake of continuing Congressional investigations, a growing number of medical schools and medical groups are now cracking down on the outside consulting relationships of their faculty and staff members.
“I took decisions early relative to conflict of interests that are frankly now proving to be the right ones,” Dr. Zerhouni said.
Dr. Zerhouni said his tenure at the health institutes could be split into three periods. His first two years, he said, were a “euphoric phase” because the agency’s budget was growing rapidly. The second two years were difficult. Besides the conflict of interest controversy, the agency’s stagnant budget during this time forced him to explain “why it was harder getting grants.” His final two years involved “institutionalizing many of the reforms I had been advocating” and hiring many of the agency’s present leaders.
Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, chairman of the agency’s department of clinical bioethics, had criticized Dr. Zerhouni’s handling of the conflict-of-interest scandal but said Wednesday that Dr. Zerhouni “has been a victim of very difficult circumstances that he didn’t create.” Dr. Emanuel praised Dr. Zerhouni’s clinical research initiative.
Dr. Zerhouni was chosen after President Bush announced strict limits on federal financing of stem-cell research, and the White House made clear that Dr. Zerhouni was expected to support this policy. But in 2004 and 2005, Dr. Zerhouni told Congress that the president’s policy was hindering scientific progress.
That he maintained the support of the White House despite this public disagreement is noteworthy. By contrast, Dr. Richard Carmona, whose appointment as surgeon general was announced on the same day as Dr. Zerhouni’s, was forced from his job in 2006 and later told a Congressional panel that he had been muzzled and his initiatives suppressed.
Dr. Zerhouni said he decided to leave the agency before the election “so there is a clear sense that whoever wins the election, N.I.H. has to be a clear priority in their mind.”
Raynard S. Kington, deputy director of N.I.H., is expected to serve as the agency’s interim director for the remainder of the Bush administration.