February 2011

When a clear vision isn’t clear

Last month’s recommendation by the National Institutes of Health’s Scientific Management Review Board to create a new translational science institute at the NIH came as a surprise to many in the extramural research community due to the short timetable for SMRB's recommendation.


Francis Collins
NIH Director Francis Collins had made clear from the beginning of his administration that translational science would be one of the major focuses of his tenure in Bethesda.

Last month’s recommendation by the National Institutes of Health’s Scientific Management Review Board to create a new translational science institute at the NIH came as a surprise to many in the extramural research community. NIH Director Francis Collins had made clear from the beginning of his administration that translational science (and specifically the translation of basic research into life-saving treatments) would be one of the major focuses of his tenure in Bethesda, but to many in the community, the short timetable for SMRB's recommendation was unanticipated. Surely, many believed, a recommendation to create an entirely new institute at the NIH would be made after months of deliberation, stakeholder meetings and detailed analysis.

Behind the scenes, the basic research community investigated the proposal’s background, asking who was ultimately being served and looking for opportunities to slow momentum or even halt a decision until further detailed analysis could take place. While not outright opposing the proposed SMRB recommendation, the community had concerns about the unintended consequences such a decision could have on researchers who have become reliant on programs like the National Center for Research Resources’ P-41 program. The community attended the December SMRB meeting, and more than a dozen concerned stakeholders spoke, calling for further analysis and urging the SMRB to wait before making a final decision.

Ultimately, the decision to create the new center was made in a matter of only a few months and without very many discussions with key stakeholders. The SMRB voted nearly unanimously (the only opposing vote was that of outgoing National Institute of General Medical Sciences Director Jeremy Berg). The leadership of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and those on the ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee quickly mobilized, authoring a recommendation to Francis Collins and Lawrence Tabak, the principal deputy director at the NIH, to encourage the NIH to maintain the Biomedical Technology Research Centers program and the Shared Instrumentation and High End Instrumentation grants within a single institute or center. Specifically, ASBMB recommended that the BTRC program be housed in an institute whose primary focus is to support research without a disease-specific mission, such as the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a recommendation that – at the time of writing – has not received a response from NIH leadership.
 
The community continues to have more questions than answers, and where a clear public vision should exist, there is only a vacuum being filled with rumor and innuendo. What will the future hold for the biotechnology programs formally housed in the NCRR? As these programs are farmed out to their new homes at the NIH, will their funding transfer with them? Why did the leadership of the NIH ultimately choose to make decisions without offering the community an opportunity to have a role in the development of a program to ensure that all stakeholders (federal and nonfederal) were able to capitalize on the new recommendations? Why did NIH leadership feel that the fusion of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (an SMRB recommendation that took place at the same meeting as the translational science institute decision) needed more than a year of deliberation, while the creation of a new institute occurred in only months?

Let’s be clear: the creation of a new institute focusing on translational science is needed for the health and well-being of the nation. As such, the uneasiness of the community doesn’t rest with the actual decision. In fact, many support it. The unease exists because of the manner in which the decision was made and the lack of a clear plan moving forward. The community waits with bated breath for such a plan.

Benjamin W. Corb (bcorb@asbmb.org) is director of public affairs at ASBMB.


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