The National Institutes of Health are one step closer to the first large-scale reorganization in nearly a decade. During a conference call on Wednesday, the agency’s Scientific Management Review Board officially endorsed working group recommendations that would dissolve the National Center for Research Resources and distribute its constituent programs within other entities within NIH. Pending Congressional intervention, the board’s action is the final nail in NCRR’s coffin.
At its Dec. 7 meeting, the SMRB recommended removing the Clinical and Translational Science Awards program from NCRR and placing it in the newly-created National Center for the Advancement of Translational Science, along with programs for Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases Program, Rapid Access to Interventional Development Program, Cures Acceleration Network, and the Molecular Libraries Screening Center Network. The board also asked NIH to form two task forces, one to determine which other programs (if any) should comprise NCATS, and the other to assign new homes within other institutes for the remaining NCRR programs.
Reporting for the NCATS task force, Dr. Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute for Mental Health, concluded that the original Translational Medicine and Therapeutics Working Group recommendations on programs to be included in the new center were sufficient, and that no additional programs would be appropriate. Meanwhile, the NCRR task force released a “straw model” detailing where NCRR programs would be placed, inviting feedback on the model from the scientific community. After receiving over 1100 comments on its website, the task force released a finalized version just before the SMRB meeting. The most striking change from the straw model was the formation of a permanent “Infrastructure Entity” within the Office of the Director, which would contain several disparate programs, including the Shared and High End Instrumentation programs and the Division of Comparative Medicine. Meanwhile, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences would receive the Institutional Development Award program, along with all non-imaging Biotechnology Resource Technology Center programs.
The proposed reorganization has been the source of controversy since its inception. Initially it was the scientific community leading the charge; however, the past month has seen Capitol Hill take the reins. In January, House Appropriations staff member John Bartrum penned an incisive letter that raised numerous issues concerning the reorganization, and requested answers from NIH leadership. Bartrum eventually met with NIH officials, including NCRR task force chair Dr. Lawrence Tabak, to discuss the issue, but was reportedly unsatisfied by the responses he received. In addition, earlier this month, numerous members of the Senate raised concerns about the plan in a series of letters to the NIH and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The letters express “concern and opposition” to the pace of the proposed reorganization, specifically mentioning the placement of the IDeA program. Adding to the fervor, last week Dr. Jeremy Berg, Director of NIGMS and former member of the SMRB, publicly expressed his displeasure with the process, and urged the board not to dismantle NCRR.
Surprisingly, none of these concerns were discussed during the SMRB phone call. The only objection to the process on the call came from SMRB member Thomas Kelly from Sloan-Kettering Memorial, who wondered if the board should undertake a more in-depth study of the proposed reorganization. Kelly’s concerns were dismissed by Dr. Tabak, who insisted that the completed study had in fact been sufficiently thorough. During the public comment session, numerous participants from disease advocacy groups expressed their support for the plan.
A town-hall meeting with stakeholders has been arranged for March 14. ASBMB staff and Public Affairs Committee members will attend and voice the society’s position.