Anxiety continues to roil the biomedical community about a decision last month by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create a new center for translational research
and, in the process, dismantle an existing center. On Sunday, NIH deputy director Lawrence Tabak posted online a "straw model" for how the pieces of
the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) might be distributed.
The chart erases any remaining ambiguity about whether NCRR itself would still
exist, as every part of it (except the director's office) has a designated new home. Only one large chunk—NIH's Clinical and Translational Science
Awards, a $490 million program that supports clinical research at about 60 medical centers—would go to the new National Center for Advancing
Translational Sciences (NCATS). Several other components would be disbursed among the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (such as disease
model resources), NIH's imaging institute, and its institute for minority health research.
But the bulk of NCRR's portfolio—including primate models, biomedical technology, and the IDEA grants for states with little NIH funding—would go
into an "interim infrastructure unit" in the NIH Office of the Director.
Some onlookers, such as Howard Garrison of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, see the interim unit as good news. Because
these large programs cut across diseases and institutes, they are "a different animal" from single-investigator grants and need to be managed
differently, he says. "Putting them in the director's office at least offers a possibility to save some sort of home for resource programs," Garrison
says. He admits, however, that it's not yet clear what the ultimate fate of this unit would be or where it would fit in NIH's current budget.
But some commenters on NIH's feedback site wonder why NIH is moving the programs into an interim unit that seems very similar to NCRR. "Is there a
rationale for eliminating NCRR somewhere that I have missed?" asked commenter Scott Snyder.
NIH declined to comment to ScienceInsider on the straw model, but the agency plans to hold conference calls this week with stakeholders. (The
straw model is "designed to be poked at; we expect it to be critically evaluated," Tabak wrote.)
Since NIH's Scientific Management Review Board voted on 7 December to create NCATS, the agency has received more than 1100 comments, most expressing
concern about the fate of NCRR programs. (Representative comment, from 2009 Nobel Laureate Elizabeth
Blackburn, who originally studied telomeres using the protozoan Tetrahymena: "I urge you to make every possible effort to ensure that the proposed
reorganization at NIH does not jeopardize the Tetrahymena stock center - it is a critical resource.")
And less diplomatic remarks have appeared elsewhere. On one blog last week, a commenter named Padrino seemed unassuaged by NIH's efforts at outreach,
questioning NIH's timing. "Was the intention to get the whole dismantling of NCRR accomplished over the holidays, when academic researchers (the most
threatened stakeholders) were away or out of action?" Padrino asks.
"There has been not a trace of genuine dialogue or consultation in this whole thing."