SMRB Smackdown

Update: Contrast Meredith Wadman’s portrayal of the recent SMRB teleconference in Nature with the summary posted on the NIH Feedback site.

Or not.

According to the agenda posted for the SMRB meeting tomorrow (800-779-1545, pass code “NIH), we’ll get a 15-min update on what’s happening with NCRR, a 15-min update on what’s happening with NCATS, a 15-min discussion among SMRB members, and 20 min of public comment. Just that quickly, we will learn the results of the “extensive and detailed analysis through a transparent process to evaluate the impact of the new Center on other relevant extant programs at NIH, including NCRR”.

A hint of what this transparent process has wrought can be found on the NCATS feedback page, where Larry Tabak has posted an NCRR Task Force recommendations (aka updated straw model) for where NCRR programs will be redistributed. Perhaps most important is the name change from “Interim Infrastructure Unit” to “Infrastructure Entity”, which I am sure will reassure many concerned constituencies.

Former SMRB member and not-yet-former NIGMS Director Jeremy Berg has submitted a public comment urging his former fellow Board members to:

recommend to the NIH Director, to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and to Congress that NCRR not be abolished at this time, pending an appropriately transparent process, following the principles outlined in the SMRB report, Deliberating Organizational Change and Effectiveness.

Bold typeface is used in the submitted comment. He goes on to explain and cross reference his case for this recommendation and includes an e-mail he sent in advance of the December 7th SMRB meeting raising critical questions about what might happen to NCRR and the need to consider these issues before voting on any proposal to create a new center for translational science and therapeutics.

One wonders if the 15-min presentations to be made this teleconference will address the many questions raised by House staffer John Bartrum. Well, at least it won’t take long to find out.

News updates in Science and Nature highlight the pushback the NIH is getting for its hasty plans to abolish NCRR.

Update: The teleconference was very short on detail (no detailed analysis certainly), and the comments reflected concerns from specific NCRR constituencies for their programs (everyone wants to be put in the OD rather than an IC) as well as patient/disease advocacy groups telling the NIH to hurry up and deliver cures. SMRB member Tom Kelly (Sloan-Kettering) asked why the rest of NCRR wasn’t just left intact after taking out the CTSA program (which only began in 2006, whereas NCRR has been around since 1962). Larry Tabak talked about being left with an IC that looked like a coat of many colors and perhaps the time was right to consider whether better places – better adjacencies – could be found for all these programs.

Of course, the SMRB has been considering the merger of NIAAA and NIDA since its inception in 2009, and in September 2010 recommended the creation of a single new IC devoted to substance use, abuse and addiction. However, after nearly two years of deliberation, Collins has indicated the need for more thoughtful analysis and has not (apparently) transmitted this request to Sebelius, whereas, in the absence of even a cursory impact study, he transmitted the request to both create a new Center (as recommended by the SMRB) and to abolish NCRR (which was not recommended by the SMRB) less than two weeks after the December 7th meeting.

What’s next? Jocelyn Kaiser’s recap in Science suggests it’s all over but the shoutin’.

Hopefully members of the House and Senate will do a little shoutin’ of their own if there is any hope for this precedent-setting reorganization of the NIH to follow a reasonable, deliberative, transparent process.



  1. PKA said

    Hope that Director Berg’s recommendation is adopted. The apparent flaws of the process, including the extraordinary pressure on NIH Director, and the -perhaps unintended but flagrant- disrespect to the legal frame/requirements on SMRB function, responsibiliies and authorities under the 2006 NIH Reform Act argue for the scientific community requesting an injunction on abolishment of NCRR. it would be the responsible thing to do until required due process takes place. The NIH does not belong to special interests but the interests of the US.

  2. writedit said

    The National Advisory Research Resources Council has submitted a letter asking the SMRB and Collins to delay any decision to abolish NCRR until after a thorough, thoughtful analysis and dialogue can be pursued.

  3. Random Thoughts said

    I would have asked Larry Tabak why not keeping a “coat of many colors” that virtually everyone is proud to wear?. Is it perfect ?. No, it will never be. Can this coat be adapted to shifting climates or to advance new opportunities ?. Yes.

    NCRR was named National Center for Research Resources…. Resources mean Initiatives… which are most often no monochromatic. The Center was born and rooted in the concept and praxis of diverse capabilities for a diverse enterprise (basic and clinical sciences) in a diverse country with diverse needs. I think that Barbara Alving put it very nicely when she called it a “Center of Centers”.

    Anyway, what I was wondering is what’s next ?. Did anybody ask about that?.


  4. writedit said

    Mr. Berg’s concerns have gained press in The Chronicle of Higher Education as well.

    The NIH is committed to maintaining current staffing and financing levels for all affected programs, at least in the short term, Dr. Collins said.

    How reassuring. What has never been said is whether the NCRR staff intend to move to wherever their program is assigned … the loss of expertise and familiarity with these very special programs that require extensive management in some cases (construction/renovation especially) would significantly diminish their utility to the extramural research community. It is a mistake for Collins and others to assume entire programs can be moved with no adverse sequelae or loss of key personnel.

  5. Jeremy Berg said

    With regard to Dr. Kelly’s second comment:

    One possible simple and less disruptive approach would be to leave all of the other components in place within NCRR rather than distributing them. And I was wondering whether that course of action had been contemplated.

    Dr. Tabak’s answer:

    …That was the first thing that the task force considered. In other words, once we agreed to concur with the SMRB recommendation to propose moving the CTSA program from the NCRR into the proposed new center NCATS, we were left with the question with the remaining 60% budget-wise of the NCRR, be a unit if, given the opportunity to think this through, would that be the unit that we would recapitulate? And, it was the opinion of the task force that, in fact, the character of, and breadth of programs which some have likened to a “coat of many colors” was such that we probably would not recapitulate that in the same way…

    That is a potential answer to the unasked question “If you were starting from scratch, would you create NCRR as it currently exists?” However, it is not an answer to Dr. Kelly’s question regarding the contemplation of a simpler and less disruptive approach.

    After Dr. Tabak’s full response, the SMRB chair notes:

    The SMRB as a whole, of course, met of this topic on five different occasions over a period of several months… We’ve had a number of comments on this very question you raise, Tom, and others have raised, most with regard to process and with regard to the substance of handling the NCRR components and, I think, Larry you’ve provided a sound answer to our considerations. Is there anyone else who would like to make a comment on this topic at this point before we move on.

    The SMRB did meet five times to discuss the topic of translational medicine, but never met to discuss the topic of NCRR.

    • Anonymous said

      Director Berg,

      Thank you for being the vehicle for transparency within the collegial NIH leadership’s. I agree with you that Director Tabak did not respond to the essential question posed by Dr Kelly, as he did not respond either to the appropriate questions asked by the participants in the previous teleconference. In spite of the anxiety for finding real answers to what has been happening, I feel inclined to believe that Director Tabak’s approach is, at this point, the most constructive one. In my view, he is not reflecting personal opinion/judgment on the questions asked but leading a community conversation to repair the obscurities of a process in which the tip of the iceberg has been the attempt to eliminate NCRR.

      It is very unfortunate that Chairman Augustine, who could certainly responds with real facts because he has been involved in the making of this “affair”, hides himself in Dr Tabak’s conciliatory answers. Likewise, anyone who has attentively watched the SMRB meetings doesn’t need a PhD in the obvious to realize how Dr Rubenstein has been using Dr Collins’s impetus to energize existing translational realities at NIH for an outcome strictly directed to his camp of interests.

      With regard to the unasked question: “If you were starting from scratch, would you create NCRR as it currently exists?”, one possible methodological way to look at this question could be the historical one, in the context of actual and immediate future pursue (i.e. translating scientific discoveries into therapeutic tools). Looking at the history of NCRR, and my reference is what is described on NCRR at the NIH Almanac, it is apparent that this Center emerged out of a need for scientific resources to sustain biomedical inquiry and propel health growth in the country. The NCRR’s expansion and consolidation has not built on a premise of structural incremental growth (i.e., adding new patches over time). It has evolved, dynamically, out of a careful examination of scientific, clinical and social needs. Science, medicine and respective processes always happen in a context. But they do not or cannot happen if the context is not thoughtfully nurtured.

      NCRR has happened to be a “context reader” across the US to simultaneously translate “ad hoc” readings into working initiatives for diverse contexts. Other than “a coat of many colors”, it can also be said that NCRR has been an avant-gardist, unglamorously efficient reader and translator of the American Biomedical landscape.

      My wish now is that Director Berg’s departure may bring new energetic vehicles for transparency, within NIH, to follow upon your legacy.

      Thank you

      • iGrrrl said

        My fear is that with Director Berg’s departure, we will lose the one voice willing to push for real transparency.

  6. PKA said

    Maybe this is naive and/or unrealistic. But it is sad to think that after Director Berg’s departure no one else among 27 Directors would be willing to push for real transparency. Particularly if taxpayers and the scientific community push them to work hard on that.

  7. the walrus is paul said

    New posting up on the feedback page, about how — based onlast week’s teleconference — everyone now agrees with the Plan.

  8. writedit said

    Contrast Meredith Wadman’s portrayal of the recent SMRB teleconference in Nature with the summary posted on the NIH Feedback site.

    • wonderer said

      Yeap !. Interesting comparison. Reading the NIH Feedback one has the feeling that some people feel reassured on their NCRR programs being safe under NIH Director’s office. I have no doubt that Collins will make sure that is going to be the case. Except that life is unpredictable and who can guarantee that Collins is going to be there in 4-5 years?. Look, who ever thought a year ago that Jeremy Berg was going to be leaving NIH?. I think that objectives and programs ought to be planned on scientific and public health reasons and not as much on the presence of specific leaders.

  9. writedit said

    Interesting letter from Brad Bolton (GEMpath) in Nature on why the NIH plan to create NCATS and dismantle NCRR will hinder translational research:

    However, in our view, the vision of NCATS as an incubator for innovative medicines is unrealistic. A major obstacle to developing new treatments through translational science is an inadequate understanding of basic biological pathways and mechanisms — not anaemic efforts by industry to test potential drug candidates. Using the NCRR’s existing research resources as a means of enhancing the NIH’s traditional strength in mechanistic research is a more certain route to translational success than focusing on chemical screening and intramural bioassays, as proposed for NCATS.

    As veteran comparative biologists, we feel that the decision to slash the NCRR to initiate NCATS was undertaken without due diligence or sufficient opportunity for public debate. The rush to establish NCATS without a settled organizational plan and against the advice of numerous translational science researchers bodes ill for the new centre’s ability to perform meaningful translational research in the foreseeable future.

  10. writedit said

    Oddly, a very helpful notice from NCRR appeared briefly in the NIH Guide but rapidly disappeared. Having worked on G20 applications and knowing how laborious they can be, I might suggest that those with a vested interest in this funding mechanism be watchful to see if this announcement reappears:

    For many years, the National Center for Research Resources has entertained applications to renovate, repair, and improve animal resources. The most recent FOA is RFA-RR-10-011. With this Notice, NCRR announces that we do not anticipate that there will be an FOA to support animal facility improvements in FY2012. This Notice is released to prevent potential applicants from spending time developing applications.

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