Researchers are reacting with mixed feelings to the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) plans for revamping its large clinical awards to fit the mission of its new translational science center.
The Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) program, budgeted at $461 million in 2012, funds multimillion dollar grants that support clinical research at 60 major academic medical centers. NIH engendered much angst in the CTSA community when it decided in late 2010 to relocate this flagship program from another center to the proposed National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), which aims to remove bottlenecks to drug development.
One big worry  was that new overseers at NCATS would have no interest in continuing CTSA support for community engagement and other aspects of medicine that don't involve developing therapeutics. They were not reassured when acting NCATS director Thomas Insel said the centers would "evolve."
Worriers got some relief on Friday when NIH issued a request for applications  (RFA) for CTSAs up for renewal. Research categories such as community research and epidemiology are still listed as potential CTSA activities. "The full spectrum of translational research is clearly encompassed," says Lloyd Michener, who heads a community research center that's part of Duke University's CTSA in Durham, North Carolina. At the same time, proposals don't have to include as many specific activities as before, suggesting that individual CTSAs can focus on their strengths, says Henry Ginsberg, director of Columbia University's CTSA and co-chair of the CTSA Consortium Executive Committee.
In another indication that the agency is not pushing for drastic change, NIH says it will look for guidance from an Institute of Medicine report requested by Congress, which is due out next summer.
However, the RFA does have budget implications: It says that awards will now be adjusted to match 3% of an institution's overall NIH funding. That will likely mean cuts for some and larger budgets for others. (A $4 million minimum budget should protect small institutions from having programs gutted.) NIH plans to withhold some funding for a later competition that will support the CTSAs' roles in a national network. "It is not clear if all that NCATs wants to achieve can be accomplished within the same bottom line budget totals that we have now," Ginsberg says.
Letters of intent for the RFA are due by 10 December.