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January 5, 2015


Message from Harold Varmus, MD, Director, National Cancer Institute (NCI)

As we are looking towards plans for 2015, I want to be sure you all saw the message below from Harold Varmus. His message includes information that is relevant to all of us, and mentions areas of particular importance to the NCI. Though the funding climate is still tough, it is encouraging to see Dr. Varmus specifically mention NCI-designated Cancer Centers as "a critical resource for the entire cancer research effort." Please also take a look at the proposed plan budget for 2016 to see what may be in store for the "bypass budget" year.  

To NCI staff, grantees, and advisors:

Now that the new year has begun in earnest, I am writing to send seasonal greetings and offer my views about the near-term prospects for cancer research.

This year, unlike most recent years, we are in the fortunate position of having received our appropriation for the rest of the fiscal year within the first quarter, helping us to plan and manage use of those funds.  Although this year's appropriation ($4.95 B) is slightly larger than last year's (by about 0.6%), the increase is less than the rate of inflation, as has been the case nearly every year since 2003.  This signifies further erosion of the NCI's "buying power" at a time when cancer research is becoming more expensive, expanding in new directions, and showing unprecedented promise.

As a result, we who lead the NCI face a difficult dilemma: how to provide sufficient resources to our grantees to allow them to accomplish their ambitious goals, without reducing the numbers of awards we can make-further attenuating the cancer research community.  Moreover, the recent, rapid growth in knowledge about cancer-its genetic basis, the signaling pathways that govern cell misbehavior, immune responses to cancer cells-is a spur to the development of new approaches and new programs that are difficult to finance under current circumstances without reducing support for existing worthwhile programs.

Despite these recurrent anxieties, the new calendar year promises to be pivotal and exciting for the NCI.  We will be reviewing the first round of applications for the new Outstanding Investigator Award, which is intended to provide more stable funding for some of our best scientists.  The newly reorganized National Clinical Trials Network (NCTN), in close collaboration with the reconfigured NCI Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP), will be expanding an array of scientifically informed trials-MATCH, MPACT, ALCHEMIST, and others-that will accelerate the on-going transformation of cancer therapy as a part of the broader movement to "precision medicine."  This transformation of oncology will proceed hand-in-hand with improvements in bioinformatics (helped by NCI's new cloud computation pilots and our membership in the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health [GA4GH]); with expanded genomic studies of pediatric and common adult cancers and the creation of a Genomic Data Commons; and with rapidly increasing knowledge about how to manipulate the immune system to treat cancers.

While we celebrate these prospects, the NCI will also remain deeply engaged in confronting the problems created by growth of the scientific community in a time of fiscal constraint.  At the forthcoming NCI Leadership Retreat in late January, we will be discussing some potential solutions to these challenges: new mechanisms to accelerate the training of the most promising young investigators; grants to encourage the careers of staff scientists; the merits and liabilities of some of the current grant mechanisms for supporting research; trends in NCI's support of basic science; and various ways to enhance the diversity of the research community.

Throughout the coming year, we also expect to be giving close attention to the funding of NCI-designated cancer centers, a critical resource for the entire cancer research effort; to implementation of recommendations emerging from a recent evaluation of the NIH intramural program; to new ideas for preventing, screening for, and monitoring cancers; to proposals for new initiatives at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research; and to the evaluation of the Provocative Questions program as it enters its third year of grant-making.

Many of these topics and others are summarized in broad terms in NCI's recently issued budget plan for FY2016 (the so-called "bypass budget proposal"), which can be viewed on line at  In all of these domains, we seek the views of those we serve-extra- and intramural scientists, cancer research advocates, the health care community, and the general public-and we welcome your comments at

With best wishes for the new year,

Harold Varmus
Director, NCI