Collins's Plan to Reshuffle NIH Draws More Flak

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

The revolt is spreading against a plan by U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins to create a new center on translational medicine by reassigning existing pieces of the $31 billion agency.

Today, the top advisory body to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), the component scheduled to inherit many of those pieces, agreed to draft a letter expressing its unhappiness with Collins's plan, which would bust up the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) in the course of creating the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). And NIGMS Director Jeremy Berg, who opposed the new center when an NIH management board recommended it last month, explained in greater detail why he thinks breaking up NCRR is a bad idea.

"I've never understood how dismantling NCRR solves more problems than it creates," Berg told members of the NIGMS council during its meeting on the Bethesda, Maryland, NIH campus. Berg compared NCRR to a city's department of public works, calling it an entity familiar with operating large facilities for the common good, and said it helps researchers from all disciplines. Folding its large programs into NIGMS "would be a big management challenge," added Berg, who is leaving NIGMS in June as the "trailing spouse" as his wife takes up a position at the University of Pittsburgh.

Collins says that NCATS will help spur the development of drugs and other treatments by industry. But as the NIGMS council discussion made clear, there's no consensus about where NIH should draw the line between financing basic research to improve understanding of potential targets and helping the private sector push those targets through the drug-development pipeline. "If the reason [to create NCATS] is to derisk opportunities for industry, I think that's quite bizarre and contrary to the entrepreneurial spirit," said Yale University chemistry professor Scott Miller. James Stevens, a senior research fellow at Lilly Research Laboratories in Indianapolis, also questioned the rationale behind the new center: "If there is any organization that is slower and less agile than industry, it's the federal government."

Leaving aside that debate, the big issue facing NIH and the biomedical community is whether Collins's plan is the best use of NIH's large but still finite budget and the possible threat to existing research activities supported by NCRR that affect the rest of the 27 institutes and centers."Is there a management logic to splitting them?" asked council member Howard Garrison, who heads up the policy shop for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. "It seems wasteful and destructive without a vision of why."

Garrison volunteered to draft a letter describing the council's concerns about how NIGMS would be affected. It would be sent to Collins and the NIH management board as well as to Collins's boss, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and to the congressional panels that set NIH's budget. A House of Representatives spending panel has already asked for information on the proposed changes, which would go into effect in 180 days unless Congress intervenes.

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