Despite concerns previously expressed by many extramural scientists, National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus researchers who showed up yesterday to hear Director Francis Collins unveil a proposed new center devoted to translational research appeared to like the idea.
The 1-hour campus town hall meeting was the first time Collins has spoken to his entire staff about the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), which an advisory board recommended in December. The center would fold together several existing NIH clinical and drug discovery and development programs. But NCATS "is not going to become the place where all the therapeutic development at NIH goes on," Collins said. It "will be rather modest in size compared to the investments" at other institutes. Nor is NIH turning into a drug company, he said; the "the idea is to complement and not compete with the private sector." NCATS will "reinforce and not reduce NIH's commitment to basic science research," he said.
Instead, NCATS will serve as "a catalytic hub" for therapeutics development across NIH in part by studying ways to make the process more efficient, Collins said. He showed how this will work with a slide sprinkled with yellow dots representing NIH's 20-some other institutes and centers, all linked with arrows to a dot in the the middle for NCATS.
There was no yellow dot for the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), which NIH decided in December to abolish, despite protests from some NIH leaders and many NCRR-funded scientists. Collins did not mention NCRR in his talk, although he alluded to it by saying that the creation of NCATS "can be disruptive" and that "some of you in the room are having your lives affected in very significant ways."
During 15 minutes of questions, staff members asked how other institutes can make use of NCATS's resources. One scientist suggested that the center take over abandoned projects from companies that have pulled out of mental health research. Only one question concerned NCRR: Genome institute scientist Shawn Burgess asked what will happen to the center's fruit fly and yeast stock resources for genetic studies. Those and other NCRR programs "will be continued" within other parts of NIH, Collins said.
Next, NIH must send Congress a modified 2012 budget plan and new organizational chart showing how pieces of NCRR and other institutes will be reshuffled to create NCATS. An NIH official says that should happen by end of April, before spending panels draw up NIH's budget for 2012.
Some groups are still unhappy with NIH's plan for breaking up NCRR. A 28 February letter from the advisory council of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), which is to receive NCRR's grants for minority institutions, urges NIH to keep that program together with the IDeA program for states with relatively little NIH funding. Many states have both types of grants, and "merging" them at NIMHD "will synergize the overlapping goals and objectives of both entities," the letter says. In NIH's plan, the $229 million IDeA program will go to a different institute.