Embracing Responsibility for NIH Reorganization

A recent editorial in Nature presents a rather different slant on the NCRR-NCATS situation at the NIH than has been portrayed previously in their various news, commentary, and blog pieces. For example:

The process to set up the centre, with an initial budget of more than US$600 million, has certainly been hasty, and has by its nature alienated a significant element of the NIH-funded community. But Collins is right to seek to accomplish quickly what otherwise threatens to become a drawn-out and even more disruptive period of necessary change. Band-Aids are best torn off quickly.

Band-Aids? What Band-Aids? The NCRR was functioning at the peak of health, and the other ICs are funding billions of dollars in translational research. What has alienated the NIH and the NIH-funded community is the unscientific, non-transparent, and one-sided approach to making decisions. Which, the editorialist in fact noted:

In what can only be termed an executive decision, taken quickly in December and presented to the NIH community effectively as a fait accompli, Collins wants to dismantle the remaining 60% of the NCRR and move its programmes elsewhere …

The move to dismantle NCRR was indeed a calculated executive decision to bypass the SMRB and the rest of the NIH intra- and extra-mural communities.

The editorial moves on to mention a few of the concerns associated with these maneuvers:

It is certainly risky to dismember a $1.3-billion centre and scatter its programmes without the months of analysis that, for instance, went into the decision to create a new addictions institute at the NIH in 2013. And grant recipients of NCRR-supported programmes have been forced to settle for verbal promises from Collins that the money, staff and commitment will remain unchanged in their new institutional homes. In dire budget times for the agency, such assurances are understandably cold comfort. The new NCATS will also take tremendous institutional investment to make it work, far more than is reducible to dollars and cents. The learning curve for all involved will be steep.

The rationale given for this haste is worrisome:

What’s more, he has reason to hurry. It is entirely possible that he will be out of a job 18 months from now if Republicans capture the White House in next year’s presidential election.

Surely if this is so obviously the right thing to do and the right time to do it, the next NIH Director could be trusted to continue the process at a reasonable pace. Is by-passing the SMRB and its intended role as well as any careful analysis and thoughtful planning worth the trade-off of having Collins preside over the ribbon-cutting ceremony?

Oddly, the editorial names someone never previously mentioned in conjunction with these organizational changes, someone not involved with the SMRB:

It’s worth noting, too, that the new ‘infrastructure entity’ in his office will be overseen by James Anderson, a thoughtful manager with a reputation for being smart, effective and organized — and with a keen eye for checking that programmes are well run.

I am somewhat surprised that the editors of a British science journal are so attuned to program administrators buried in NIH bureaucracy. Or that the new a newly appointed division director already has such a strong track record of success. Anderson arrived last fall to direct the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives (formerly known as OPASI). How the editors at Nature knew about his key role in overseeing the remnants of NCRR is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps ghostly.

Those on the NCRR Task Force might have worked out on paper where the “programs” go, but how much thought has been given to the logistics of the actual transition, especially if the personnel with years of experience managing these complicated programs do not move along with them? Then there is the issue of managing funding announcements and applications during the transition, which could be especially tricky for construction mechanisms.

The National Advisory Research Resources Council expressed their frustrations with regard to lack of consideration of these and other issues in their public comment to the SMRB:

The process undertaken over these past months leading to the decision to eliminate NCRR was rushed and excluded members of the affected scientific community, the NCRR leadership, and the NCRR advisory council from any input into the process. Congress and the public expect and deserve, among other things, transparency, stakeholder input, meaningful deliberation and consideration, and importantly, analysis of impact and consequences before the fact, not after decisions have been made. This is essential to ensure continued public trust.

The mission of the NCRR is unique at the NIH, providing flexibility and independence not easily available in categorical ICs. Its programs contribute substantially to ICs that provide extramural funding. The outcry from the research community following announcement of the intention to eliminate NCRR and to reassign its programs to other ICs should be considered in a meaningful way. …

We strongly urge the SMRB and Office of the Director to delay any further decisions based on the recommendation to eliminate NCRR and to delay any reassignment of NCRR programs. Proposed changes to existing NCRR programs must involve further open discussion with the scientific community, as well as the other NIH ICs. We see no scientific justification for rushing these decisions in order to complete the reorganization prior to October 1, 2011.

Clearly the SMRB has never had any role in this, and the Office of the Director is, in light of the editorial observation above, concerned more with short-term legacy than long-term planning. Congress, however, could still have something to say since NCATS will need to be specifically written into the first CR for FY12 (in light of the current debate ongoing for FY11, we clearly will not have any appropriation bills passed before Oct 1), and NCRR will need to be specifically written out of it.

6 Comments »

  1. anon 5 said

    Thanks for the ongoing coverage of the NCRR reorganization. I hope that I am wrong about this, but I suspect that this reorganization will happen unless Congress specifically prohibits it. The argument that could be used by those pushing the reorganization is that the NCRR programs are not new. Under that argument, the NCRR funds made available in the first CR in October will simply flow into the organizations where the programs moved to. It won’t be pretty, but once a final budget passes, everything will get sorted out.

    • Anonymous said

      anon 5,

      if you are not wrong on this, then our only alternative, but full responsibility is for all members of the scientific community, is to contact members of Congress and urge them to stop this reorganization. Mark Lively has provided excellent reasons and questions for Congress to consider:

      As Mark Lively said:

      “Opposition to the proposed elimination of the NCRR should NOT be equated with opposition to the bold plans of Director Collins to transform the drug development process. Creation of NCATS will be a long term experiment with potential to redefine the process of therapeutic discovery and improve our ability to deliver the promise of improved health to the world. The NIH leadership has not adequately explained why execution of that important experiment requires the reorganization of the 60% of the NCRR programs that will remain after transferring the Clinical Translational Science Award program to NCATS. NCRR programs provide research resources essential to research conducted by nearly all NIH instututes and centers.
      The unanswered question is “Why has the leadership decided that elimination of NCRR is necessary?” The proposal to create the Infrastructure Unit within the NIH Office of the Director (OD) begs the question. Why destroy the effective and efficient NCRR administative unit just to recreate a similar unit within the NIH OD? Creation of NCATS can easily proceed as planned without elimination of NCRR.
      The controversy should end and we should all focus on securing continued support for the overall NIH budget that is threatened by the economic crisis. Create NCATS, leave NCRR in place, and move on. Why not?”

  2. Padrino said

    Politics, politics, politics. There is a current stautory limit of 28 ICs authorized at NIH. To create NCATS and leave NCRR intact would mean Collins going to a deficit-cutting Congress and asking to expand the NIH. Not going to happen. So an IC had to go to get NCATS done. The NCRR got the axe because its “constituency” is mostly academic institutions and researchers, not well-organized, politically potent patient groups and disease-advocacy societies.

  3. writedit said

    A letter in Science signed by 25 scientists in industry and academia call into question Collins’ plans to create NCATS and dismantle NCRR as a means to “advancing” translational research …

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) proposal to launch a National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) by dismembering the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) (“Collins sparks furor with proposed NIH reshuffling,” J. Kaiser, News and Analysis, 28 January, p. 386) is more likely to hinder than bolster translational research.

    Developing new treatments requires understanding of disease mechanisms. Such studies depend on superior facilities, resources, and training, which for years have been effectively supported by the NCRR Division of Comparative Medicine (DCM) (1). The original NCATS proposal sought to divide core NCRR functions, including those in DCM, between NCATS and a hodgepodge Interim Infrastructure Unit (2). The updated proposal preserves major DCM roles within an Infrastructure Entity (2). This revision clearly concedes that reducing disruption to existing NCRR resources is a surer way for NIH to sustain its historical vigor in mechanistic research while also boosting its translational science attainments than an impulsive shift to chemical screening and preclinical testing by an untried NCATS.

    Furthermore, the utility of the NCATS compared with the proven value of NCRR has not been adequately considered by the scientific community. To date, the NCATS concept and original “Straw Model” have received hundreds of comments, many of which are critical (3–7); deliberations over the revised NCATS proposal have barely begun (8). Hurried implementation of NCATS over such widespread objections will immediately call into question the credibility of the new Center.

    As veteran comparative biologists, we believe that the best way to rapidly advance NIH translational science efforts will be to build rather than break the successful, integrated program within the NCRR. Any other choice should be recognized for what it is: good politics, but bad policy.

    Brad Bolon, Bruce Altrock, Stephen W. Barthold, Nicole Baumgarth, David Besselsen, Gregory Boivin, Kelli L. Boyd, Cory Brayton, Robert D. Cardiff, Suzana Couto, Kathryn A. Eaton, Oded Foreman, Stephen M. Griffey, Krista La Perle, Michael D. Lairmore, Chen Liu, David K. Meyerholz, Alexander Yu. Nikitin, Trenton R. Schoeb, Denise Schwahn, Rani S. Sellers, John P. Sundberg, Ravi Tolwani, Victor E. Valli, and M. Christine Zink

    • Kanterbury said

      Thanks writedit for bringing this Science’s letter to attention. Many of us, in the scientific community, are wrapped up in academic concerns, funding etc as to not be fully aware of the real reasons for some “hot” initiatives. And, unfortunately, we can be dragged into the wrong side of the game. As Padrino seems to suggest, this NCATS affair/NCRR dissolution smells of politics and politics and power by the powerful and “politically” connected.

      In a “more of the same” but different front is the story on the wanting back the A2 resubmissions and engaging ESI investigators in the petition (ESI might just be a shield to protect established interests). Just stunned seeing Paul Knoepfler in a Nature blog defending the A2 return. As if the A2s were to give him and investigators in similar situations more opportunities to succeed. Oh well, opening our eyes might just be too little and too late. Hope not.

  4. St.Jude said

    It seems there have been other things going on at Capitol Hill over the past 2-3 weeks beyond just budget griping. Word from anonymous sources in NCRR is that NIH, at least in the form of Taback, is getting slapped around bigtime, both from the still-angry Bartram and from legislators whose constituents are peeved. Don’t count NCRR out of 2012 and beyond just yet !

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