National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias Zerhouni unveiled a "roadmap" today for the future of the biomedical research giant. The plan aims at moving discoveries to the clinic more quickly by giving bench scientists more tools, encouraging cross-disciplinary teams, and overhauling the infrastructure for clinical trials.
"Think of it as synergizing areas that no institute either has the mission or resources to invest in," Zerhouni says. Funding for the initiative is relatively modest: $2.1 billion over 6 years (compared to NIH's 2003 budget of $27.3 billion), but the team effort is unprecedented. "It's a revolutionary process for NIH," says Zerhouni, because all 27 institutes and centers agreed to chip in. "That has never been done before," he says.
To chart the roadmap, Zerhouni met with more than 300 biomedical experts from outside and within NIH over the course of 14 months. He asked them to brainstorm about roadblocks to research that no single institute could overcome. The result is a grab bag of 28 initiatives, including:
* Clinical research. To save resources and allow data to be compared across trials, NIH wants to develop a national network for clinical trials that uses standard data protocols. The plan is "very ambitious," says clinical researcher Steven Cummings of the University of California, San Francisco, who helped craft it.
* Drug discovery. The agency intends to set up a "molecular library" that includes at least 500,000 synthetic small molecules. Scientists at NIH, universities, and companies would do a preliminary screen of the compounds, after which private industry could pick up promising drug candidates for further investigation.
* Interdisciplinary research. The roadmap aims to boost collaborations among disciplines by funding centers and meetings.
* Other plans include a new award that would give creative researchers $500,000 a year for 5 years with no strings attached (Science, 15 August, p. 902), "nanomedicine" centers, and a national grid for biological computing.
Former NIH Director Harold Varmus, now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, says that Zerhouni "has done a terrific job" at bringing institutes together to produce the roadmap. But, he says, "the question is whether consensus will persist if budgets tighten." Others are also cautious. Steven Teitelbaum of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, past president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, says he's "very positive" about the roadmap's potential to give researchers access to "big science" technologies. But Teitelbaum is concerned that the roadmap could take money away from traditional grants for investigators.
With reporting by Jennifer Couzin.