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NIH Director Jumps the Gun With Memo Announcing New Center

19 December 2011 4:15 pm
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In an embarrassing misstep, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins sent his staff a triumphant memo this weekend heralding Congress's sign-off on a controversial new center aimed at speeding drug development. An hour later, Collins retracted the e-mail after realizing that President Barack Obama had not yet signed the bill into law.

It's the latest glitch in the saga of the proposed National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS). For the past year, scientists, lawmakers, and some NIH leaders have argued that Collins was ramming NCATS through without adequate discussion. Late last week, when a 2012 spending bill establishing NCATS headed from Congress to the president, Collins seemed to have won the battle. In an e-mail sent Saturday at 6:57 p.m. E.S.T. titled "Changes at NIH," he notes that the bill signed by the president that day will "formally establish" NCATS. "This is an important step forward in our efforts to speed the delivery of new drugs, diagnostics, and medical devices to patients."

"This is a signal moment for NIH," the e-mail continues, noting that it also involves the dismantling of another NIH component with a "rich history," the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR). Collins' plan to scrap NCRR without consulting the community fueled the NCATS controversy.

The e-mail goes on to say that NCAT's acting director will be Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and its acting deputy director will be Kathy Hudson, Collins's NIH deputy director for science, outreach, and policy. Both will also remain in their current jobs.

At 8 p.m. Saturday, Collins sent another e-mail with the subject: "Correction: Please disregard the previous message." It explains that the bill signed by the president was a stop-gap spending measure until 23 December—not the 2012 spending bill. "Nothing is finalized until we have a signed bill. We apologize for any confusion." (The two memos first became public on the blog writedit.)

So how did NIH screw up? "It was my fault," confesses NIH communications director John Burklow. He sent the first memo after receiving an e-mail from NIH's parent department notifying him that the president had just signed a spending bill. He failed to notice that that bill was the short-term measure. "That was my mistake and I hit the button too soon," Burklow says. President Obama isn't expected to sign the 2012 spending bill until later this week.

For the many critics of the NCATS reorganization, the premature memo rubbed salt in their wounds. "It's an indicator of the rushed way this whole thing was done. They [NIH leaders] need to go back to Government 101," says biochemist Mark Lively of Wake Forest University School of Medicine, a member of NCRR's advisory board.

Officially, it's still business as usual at NCRR. But late last week its staff members were given new assignments at the institutes that will absorb the soon-to-be-defunct center's programs.

The two e-mails from Collins follow.

From: Exec Sec1 (NIH/OD)
Sent: Saturday, December 17, 2011 6:57 PM
To: NIH-STAFF@LIST.NIH.GOV
Subject: Message from the NIH Director - Changes at NIH

To: All NIH Staff
From: Director, NIH
Date: December 17, 2011
Subject: Changes at NIH

The omnibus appropriations bill for FY2012 passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama today includes provisions that formally establish the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) as a new component of the NIH. This is an important step forward in our efforts to speed the delivery of new drugs, diagnostics, and medical devices to patients. It was just over a year ago that the Scientific Management Review Board recommended the establishment of this new component of NIH, and the achievement of this complex outcome in this time frame is a testimony to the remarkable diligence of many dedicated individuals, both within and outside of NIH, who have worked together to achieve this goal.

This is a signal moment for NIH. I want to take this opportunity to recognize the rich history of the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) and pay tribute to the important contributions of its dedicated employees and grantees. Over more than two decades, NCRR has established and administered a remarkably diverse portfolio of research programs, most recently including the re-invention of our nation's academic clinical research network in the form of the Clinical and Translational Sciences Awards (CTSAs). I am grateful to Acting Director Dr. Louise Ramm and all of the dedicated staff of NCRR, for their devotion to the cause of excellence in NIH research. Although NCRR is now disbanded, its scientific legacy will live on. As former NCRR employees and their programs transition into new homes within NCATS and other Institutes and Centers, please welcome them with open arms and embrace their wealth of expertise and experience.

Change is never easy; however, it often opens doors to unexpected opportunities for personal growth and scientific collaboration. So, even as we look back at the many accomplishments of NCRR, let us also look ahead to NCATS and realizing its vision of transforming translational research.

In this vein of change, I am pleased to designate Thomas Insel, M.D., as the Acting Director of NCATS and Kathy L. Hudson, Ph.D., as Acting Deputy Director of NCATS. Drs. Insel and Hudson will lead the many activities of bringing the Center into being and getting its programs underway, while we conduct a nationwide search for the first NCATS Director. Drs. Insel and Hudson have already been deeply involved in establishing the Center and are natural choices to implement our plans for NCATS. Both of them will continue to serve in their current roles, at NIMH and in the Director's Office respectively, while serving in these Acting leadership positions.

I very much appreciate Tom's and Kathy's willingness to take on these exciting but challenging additional roles, and I know I can count on all of you to join me in giving them as much support as possible.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

From: Exec Sec1 (NIH/OD)
Sent: Saturday, December 17, 2011 8:00 PM
To: NIH-STAFF@LIST.NIH.GOV
Subject: Message from the NIH Director — Correction: Please disregard the previous message.

To: All NIH Staff
From: Director, NIH
Date: December 17, 2011
Subject: Correction: Please disregard the previous message.

The President signed a Continuing Resolution until December 23, so nothing is finalized until we have a signed bill. We apologize for any confusion.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

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