Legislator Asks NIH To Halt Search for Translational Center Director

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is again taking flak from Congress for its plan to create a center for translational research. Representative Denny Rehberg (R-MT), chair of a key House of Representatives spending panel, says it is "premature" for NIH to look for a director for the new center until Congress has given its approval.

The proposed National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) has drawn concerns from several senators and a House staffer in the past. Now in a 15 June letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Rehberg says he's worried about the impact on two programs—the Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) and Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSAs). (Both are now part of the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), which NIH plans to dissolve; the CTSAs would go to NCATS and IDeA to another institute.)

Rehberg tells HHS he's also "troubled" that his committee hasn't received answers to some questions about NCATS or received budget details from the White House. "Until such information is provided we cannot responsibly take any action on this matter," he writes.

Given all this, Rehberg is "very troubled" that NIH Director Francis Collins told his advisory council on 9 June that NIH has begun to search for NCATS's first director and tell NCRR staff members about their new assignments. "It seems premature to take these steps," Rehberg says. "I suggest NIH cease all action related to establishing NCATS" until President Barack Obama has formally requested the changes and Congress has acted.

Rehberg chairs the House appropriations labor/HHS subcommittee, which oversees NIH's budget. On 26 July, it will introduce a spending bill that would need to fund NCATS if it is to launch by 1 October, the start of the 2012 fiscal year.

Several other House members, including Representative Michael Capuano (D-MA), who represents the Boston area, also wrote NIH recently with concerns about how the reorganization would affect CTSAs. Last week Capuano sent NIH another letter. "Several of Congressman Capuano's constituents have expressed concerns that the NIH's priorities may be shifting away from basic research," explained Capuano spokesperson Alison Mills, who declined to release the letter until NIH responds.

NIH spokesperson John Burklow said the agency is preparing a response to Rehberg's letter. As for the NCATS director, the agency will begin by forming a search committee. "While we need to start our search for outstanding leaders, we will not hire an NCATS director until NCATS has been formally established," Burklow says.

*This item has been updated: Here is the 31 March letter from Capuano and 11 other members of Congress, who write that their "hope" is that when the CTSAs move to NCATS "the full spectrum of translational research is sustained, and...resources are not diverted." In a 7 June 7 reply, NIH Director Francis Collins assures the lawmakers that "we are committed to the successful transfer of this program - intact - into NCATs."

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