Ever since the Dec. 7 announcement that the National Institutes of Health would be creating a new translational science center, the extramural community has been vociferous in making its opinion heard. By contrast, NIH leadership had been virtually silent on the issue until Jan. 14, when Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius officially notified Congress of the agency’s plans, lifting the cone of silence that had restricted agency officials from commenting.
In the past week, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins gave several interviews on the topic, explaining his motivation for creating the National Center for the Advancement of Translational Science (NCATS). “This is the moment,” Collins stated, claiming that recent scientific discoveries and developments had “prompted new partnerships in which NIH-supported investigators work to ‘de-risk’ drug and therapeutic development projects and render them more attractive for private sector investment.” In defending his actions, Collins also cited his frustration at “how many of the discoveries that do look as though they have therapeutic implications are waiting for the pharmaceutical industry to follow through with them.”
Despite Collins’ enthusiasm, the plan has generated significant concern amongst scientists, regarding both the creation of NCATS and the corresponding dismantling of the National Center for Research Resources, especially given the current austere funding climate. Collins himself acknowledged this point, conceding that “there are some people that would say this is not the time to do something bold and ambitious because the budget is so tight.” However, he argued that it “would be irresponsible not to take advantage of scientific opportunity, even if it means tightening in other places.”
The NIH Feedback website has received over 1100 public comments from stakeholders, which, according to Collins, have been “almost universally enthusiastic,” though a quick glimpse of the posts tosses a little cold water on this claim. Collins did allow that he “would have wanted to have the chance to have a lot more discussion with the extramural community,” but claimed that his “hands [were] tied by statutory limitations.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak, who is heading a Task Force to determine where to place NCRR programs, has held multiple phone calls with NCRR grantees and concerned stakeholders over the past week, seeking input on the recently released “Straw Model” that details the reorganization. On the calls, Tabak repeatedly stressed that the model was intended to be critiqued, and that it would likely be changed, based on the input received, before being finalized. He also added that NCRR programs (and staff) would be maintained, but did not provide much detail other than what had been presented previously to the public. Several call participants provided input on the placement of various funding programs, such as the Biomedical Technology Research Centers, while others used the calls as an opportunity to comment more generally on the reorganization plan as a whole.
According to Collins, the Task Force will present its final reorganization recommendations at the next Scientific Management Review Board meeting in late February. From there, Congress has until July 13 to intervene; otherwise, the plan will be officially approved. As the process moves forward, ASBMB is maintaining communication with NIH officials, including Dr. Tabak, and congressional staff, ensuring that our recommendations are heard.
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