A story yesterday reported that salaries for top researchers at the National Cancer Institute had increased by an average of $20,000 in the last two years. Only a minority of physician-researchers have received that large a raise. Since 1988, the average salary for NIH research physicians has risen by about $7,300, and for non-physician scientists, by about $6,000. (Published 7/28/90)

Seventeen months ago, Robert E. Wittes joined a stream of high-level scientists fleeing the National Cancer Institute for better-paying jobs in the private sector. He charged that federal officials had "bled cancer to feed AIDS" research, and that tight budgets and staff shortages were making it impossible for NCI to fulfill its mission.

Next month, Wittes will be moving back into an office on the Bethesda campus of the National Institutes of Health. He has resigned his post as vice president for cancer research at Squibb Bristol Myers, and will take what colleagues estimated will be a 70 percent salary cut to rejoin NCI as chief of its medicine branch.

Budgets are still tight and NCI still has plenty of vacancies. But what lured Wittes back, according to his new boss Gregory A. Curt, another recently returned scientist, was the realization that NCI continues to offer opportunities for cutting-edge research that exist nowhere else.

Curt said he reached the same conclusion one night in January 1989, six months after leaving NCI to take a job at Brown University.

He remembers turning on his car radio and hearing NCI's Steven Rosenberg discussing his use of special killer cells to treat cancer. "I thought, 'God, I used to be part of that,' " Curt recalled. " 'I used to know that was going to happen before it was reported on the radio.' " Six months later, he was back at NCI.

Curt said part of the credit for his and Wittes' return goes to Samuel Broder, the renowned AIDS researcher who became NCI director last year. Broder succeeded Vincent DeVita, an aggressive, high-profile administrator whose departure rocked the institute. Curt said Broder has provided stable, effective leadership and that morale has improved greatly since he took over.

"Sam's a real gentleman," said Curt. "We respect him not only because he's approachable, because he says 'Thank you,' but because he himself has a record of accomplishment." Broder's studies of the drug AZT led to the discovery that it was an effective treatment for AIDS.

"I attribute it all to me," Broder quipped when asked about the return of the prodigal researchers. But he added that NCI still has problems. "Having them come back is a good sign, but two swallows do not make a spring," he said. "We still have considerable difficulty in recruiting senior-level scientists and clinical researchers. Government service as a calling just doesn't seem to have the same force that it might have had in another era."

Annual salaries for top researchers at NIH have risen by an average of $20,000 over the last two years, but are lower than those for comparable positions at medical schools, and much lower than those offered by drug companies, according to Bruce A. Chabner, director of NCI's division of cancer treatment. In recent years, shortages of space and support staff have also hampered the agency's ability to attract top-level scientists. And there is the annual anxiety over what the next year's federal budget will bring.

But to offset these shortcomings, NIH offers researchers unparalleled opportunities to take discoveries quickly and easily from the laboratory to testing in human patients. The studies that first proved chemotherapy could cure some types of cancer, and those that first showed AZT prolonged the lives of AIDS patients, were done in Building 10, the massive brick research hospital known as the Clinical Center.

Broder said such studies are becoming increasingly harder to perform outside of NIH, because of shortages of research beds, difficulties getting human studies approved and the unwillingness of insurance carriers to pay for experimental treatments.

He noted that Rosenberg, for example, probably could not have developed his unorthodox new cancer treatments elsewhere, which have included conducting the country's first gene-therapy experiment. "The opportunities are unique," he said.

Curt, who left Brown to take Broder's old job as head of the NCI's clinical oncology program, shares that view. "Half of the beds dedicated to clinical research in the United States are in Building 10," he said. "At Brown . . . we had two. The NCI here at Building 10 has 125. Those 125 beds can be used to test the best ideas coming from our labs."

He said he left the NCI for Brown because his wife had a job offer in Providence, but that he quickly came to miss it. When he was offered Broder's former post, he said, he told his wife, "I don't care if it costs us our house, I really have to do this job. This is a place where things happen."

Wittes, who left Bristol-Myers Squibb June 30, could not be reached yesterday. Before leaving NCI, he served as acting deputy director of its division of cancer treatment, coordinating multi-hospital studies of cancer treatments.

Chabner said that as chief of the medicine branch, Wittes will oversee a much smaller program. But he will have complete control over studies conducted in Building 10 to develop and test new drugs for cancer.

"When you work for a drug company, you work on their product," he said. "The goal is to get the drug approved . . . . Here, the goals are to find ways of treating cancer. You're not restricted."