November 2010

Honoring Jeremy Berg

Schachman Award
ASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer gives the Howard K. Schachman Public Service Award to Jeremy Berg.

On Sept. 20, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology presented the 2011 Howard K. Schachman Public Service Award to Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Established in 2001, the Schachman Award is the highest honor given by ASBMB to acknowledge exemplary dedication to public service in support of biomedical science. Previous recipients include U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Tom Harkin; former U.S. Reps. John Porter and Robert Michel; the National Institutes of Health’s Ruth Kirschstein; philanthropist John Whitehead and the Research!America organization. The ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee selected Berg because of his tireless advocacy in support of investigator-initiated research and the fundamental research that is dear to the hearts of every ASBMB member.

Howard K. Schachman is a former president of ASBMB (1987) and former president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (1988) who chaired ASBMB’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee from 1989 to 2000 (1, 2). As a young faculty member, Schachman spoke out vociferously against an anti-Communist loyalty oath imposed in 1949 by the Regents of the University of California. A pioneer in the field of analytical ultracentrifugation (2, 3), Schachman devoted an enormous amount of time advocating for the importance of federally funded basic research. He worked as an adviser to former NIH Director Harold Varmus, as NIH ombudsman in the basic sciences and sat in on many study-section meetings to obtain insight on how to improve the peer-review process. In all of his public service activities, Schachman helped to formulate positions that he hoped represented the working scientist’s point of view.

Given this background, Jeremy Berg is an especially appropriate recipient of this award. Prior to his appointment as NIGMS director, Berg was a faculty member and director of both the department of biophysics and biophysical chemistry and the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. He also directed the Markey Center for Macromolecular Structure and Function and co-directed the W.M. Keck Center for the Rational Design of Biologically Active Molecules at Hopkins. Berg continues to direct an active research lab that focuses on the structural and functional roles of zinc-finger proteins and zinc-binding domains and on the properties of receptors involved in intracellular protein targeting. He certainly is a working scientist and a card-carrying biochemist.

Many may recognize his name from the textbook, “Biochemistry,” which he co-authored with Tymoczko and Stryer (4). His involvement as lead author of this textbook evolved from his research experiences in Lubert Stryer’s laboratory as an undergraduate at Stanford University. Berg’s deep and broad knowledge of biochemistry is, in part, why he frequently is sought after by the press to explain the underlying discoveries that lead to Nobel prizes and other awards.

As director of NIGMS, Berg oversees a $2 billion budget that funds basic research in cell biology, biophysics, genetics, developmental biology, pharmacology, physiology, biological chemistry, bioinformatics and computational biology. The institute supports more than 4,000 research grants— about 10 percent of all NIH grants— as well as a variety of programs designed to increase the diversity of the biomedical research work force.

A major challenge faced by every NIH institute director is how to accomplish the most with the limited research dollars that currently are available. Under Berg’s leadership, NIGMS has trimmed budgets wherever possible to be able to fund the maximum number of R01 awards. Although no one enjoys getting the phone call that says, “your grant will be funded, but the budget has been cut,” this approach is being taken in an attempt to sustain our field in challenging times. When dispersing research dollars, NIGMS gives special consideration to new investigators and also to the total resources available to a given lab to carry out the proposed research. The rules followed for funding allocations can be found online and are helping sustain the total number of investigator-initiated applications that get paid.

At NIGMS, Berg has provided a level of transparency that is rare for any government agency. His institute publishes a blog (NIGMS Feedback Loop), and he has been unusually responsive to his constituents, recently providing detailed data on funding probabilities as a function of priority scores for submitted applications. Berg also is proud of his role overseeing the NIH director’s Pioneer Award program (since its second year) and the new NIH director’s New Innovator Award program, specifically designed to support unusually creative new investigators when they may lack the preliminary data required for an R01 grant. The NIH has long had the reputation of funding projects that are guaranteed to work, and these programs are designed to encourage as much innovation as possible. Berg’s institute also developed the EUREKA program, a specialized R01 program targeted to higher risk, potentially high-impact research.

ASBMB Past-president Howard K. Schachman.

Congress wants cures for major diseases, and it is our job to explain how basic science has, and will, continue to lead to those cures. In his testimony for the House Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this year, Berg described “Good Science for Better Health.” As an example of the major impact of basic science on clinical therapies, he noted, “…Studies by the NIH Pharmacogenetics Research Network (PGRN) have shown that genetic information can help predict how heart drugs, cancer medicines, nicotine patches and a range of other treatments will work in a particular person. This research is contributing to personalized approaches to health care.” We need to keep telling these stories.

There currently are strong pressures to carry out translational research, and there are so many examples of translational breakthroughs that could never have been anticipated without fundamental, basic research groundwork. The Journal of Biological Chemistry is considering initiating a series of articles providing the background biochemistry that led to new approaches to disease therapies. These will be useful in teaching and can provide a framework for more streamlined versions to be widely shared with the public. We need to enlist all of our members, textbook authors (including NIH institute directors) and biochemistry teachers to rephrase these success stories for public (and congressional) education.

During his tenure as chairman of ASBMB’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee, Schachman became involved in a variety of heated policy discussions on topics such as indirect cost rates, fraud in science and even age-based, mandatory faculty retirement. In 1990, he filed an age-discrimination complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing that later was upheld by the State of California: from that day forward, age-based mandatory retirement of faculty was rescinded. A significant fear at the time of this decision was that the average age of faculty would increase and faculty billets might not be available to permit hiring of new, energetic, more junior colleagues. Although there is no doubt that this certainly has occurred, the recent challenge of obtaining and sustaining research funding is encouraging new retirements at an increasing rate.

Join me in thanking Jeremy Berg for doing all that he can to stretch research dollars when funds have to go further. He is working for all of us, to help us discover the molecular basis of many life processes that provide the underpinnings for future advances in health and medicine.


1. Schachman, H. K. (2006) From “Publish or Perish” to “Patent and Prosper.” J. Biol. Chem. 281, 6889 – 6903.
2. Schachman, H. K. (2000) Still Looking for the Ivory Tower. Annu. Rev. Biochem. 69, 1 – 29.
3. Kresge, N., Simoni, R. D. and Hill, R. L. (2007) Innovations in Ultracentrifugation and an Analysis of Aspartate Transcarbamoylase: The Work of Howard K. Schachman. J. Biol. Chem. 282, e16.
4. Berg, J. M., Tymoczko, J. L. and Stryer, L. (2006) Biochemistry, W. H. Freeman, 6th Ed.

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