Research Center's Death Warrant Signed by NIH Advisers

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

A decision by National Institutes of Health (NIH) leaders to abolish one of the agency's institutes ran into little opposition today from a key advisory board. One board member asked if his fellow panelists should examine whether it's wise to scrap the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR). But NIH officials and the board's chair brushed his question aside.

NIH leaders decided in December to abolish NCRR in part because a clinical research program making up 40% of its budget would move to a new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The proposed breakup of NCRR has drawn hundreds of comments from researchers concerned about the fate of their programs if they are moved to other institutes. Many, including one NIH institute director, have asked why these programs can't remain together in a smaller NCRR.

Today, the Scientific Management Review Board (SMRB), which was created by Congress to offer advice on NIH's structure, met for 1½ hours by teleconference to hear updates on these two changes—the creation of the new center, which SMRB recommended, and NIH's plan to simultaneously dismantle NCRR. It houses programs from animal models to large instruments to support for minority institutions.

Given the "fair bit of angst out there" about splitting up NCRR and the fact that "eliminating a center is as big a change as adding a new one," should SMRB undertake "a real in-depth study of whether NCRR should be essentially eliminated?" asked SMRB member Thomas Kelly of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. And did NIH consider the "possible simple and less disruptive approach" of leaving the remaining 60% of its programs intact within NCRR?

NIH deputy director Lawrence Tabak responded that his internal task force on NCRR concluded that if they were to start over again, they would probably not group NCRR's programs in the same institute. Instead, the task force liked the idea of "creating new scientific opportunities" by putting the programs "in more optimal juxtaposition to programs" in other institutes.

As for whether SMRB should study the issue more closely, Tabak said his task force did what the board would have done, namely, it undertook "extensive consultation" with the scientific community through teleconferences, meetings, and a comment Web site. (Most of this took place after NIH forwarded a proposal to abolish NCRR to the Department of Health and Human Services in December.)

Tabak's comments seemed to satisfy SMRB Chair Norman Augustine, who said Tabak "provided a sound answer." The only other SMRB member to express concern was Gail Cassell of Eli Lilly, who cautioned that comparative medicine programs should remain together. (They are together in a new infrastructure unit that Tabak said will be located in the NIH Director's Office.)

Nor were there any major objections to breaking up NCRR during eight oral comments from the public. Instead, several patient groups praised the reorganization. Amy Comstock Rick of the Parkinson's Action Network scolded scientists for "arguing about organizational matters." If NIH wants Congress to give it a raise, the community needs to present a "united front," she says.

Congress may still want to weigh in on the reorganization, however. Several senators have questioned the plan, as well as a staffer for a House of Representatives spending panel that will need to approve the budget for the reconfigured NIH.

Thomas Kelly's full comments are below.

I'm gonna—couple of points I'd like to ask you about and maybe raise for general discussion.

One relates to the fact that as I'm sure you're aware, there's a fair bit of angst out there in the scientific community about the redistribution of all of the NCRR programs and I gather this essentially amounts to the elimination of NCRR which is of course a major structural change at the NIH. And I guess I would raise for a potential point of discussion since this is such a major structural change for NIH, eliminating a center is as big a change as adding a new one, and I don't think the SMRB has had a really lengthy and deep discussion. I assume the working group really talked about this at some length but we certainly didn't give this the same sort of in-depth analysis that we did for the NIDA and NIAAA question [merging NIH's two substance abuse institutes].

So the question is whether it would be appropriate for the SMRB to undertake a real in-depth study of whether NCRR should be essentially eliminated. So that's one sort of general question. The other is the question of whether it was—given the fact that the only thing that's required to be pulled out of NCRR for the new center are the CTSAs, I gather, it seems that one possible simple and less disruptive approach would have been to leave all of the other programs in place within NCRR rather than distributing them. And I was wondering whether that course of action had been contemplated.

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