Organizational changes are needed to help the National Institutes of Health pursue more interdisciplinary and strategic research, according to a report released yesterday by the National Research Council and the Institute of medicine, both of the National Academies.
The NIH director should be given more authority and a larger budget to plan for "trans-NIH" research initiatives, as well as a six-year term that would allow the director to serve through administration changes, the report says.
"We recommended major modifications that give NIH an avenue to pursue imminent strategic and time-limited research priorities that cut across all of the institutes and centers, as well as an enhanced ability to carry out risky but highly innovative special projects," says Harold Shapiro, chair of the report committee and president emeritus and professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.
Congress requested the study last year amid concerns that the organizational structure of NIH, which has 27 centers and a budget of $27 billion, has become too fragmented and unwieldy. Complete copies of the report, "Enhancing the Vitality of the National Institutes of Health," will be available for sale in September from the National Academies press.
Meanwhile, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, M.D., on Friday announced the formation of a steering committee to give "crisp strategic direction" to decisionmaking and streamlining processes within the agency. Ten rotating members will be drawn from the directors of the centers and institutes, and the NIH director will chair the committee, which will help develop and oversee common policies across NIH.
"Leading the NIH requires a team approach that advances the agency's mission as efficiently as possible," says Zerhouni in a written statement.
The three largest institutes--the National Cancer Institute, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease--will have permanent seats in the steering committee. Other members will serve three-year terms on a staggered, rotating basis.
The National Academies committee says it believes that trans-NIH strategic initiatives to address interdisciplinary issues are better solutions than the creation of new centers. The committee recommends that Congress give the NIH director the authority to require the institutes and centers to commit 5% of their budgets for trans-NIH research in the first year of such an initiative, and up to 10% within four or five years.
Also, a special projects program should be established in the NIH director's office to fund risky, cutting-edge research that offers a high potential for payoff in terms of cures and new treatments, the report suggests. The committee recommends that Congress provide $100 million for the special projects program in the first year, with the budget expanding to as much as $1 billion a year in the future.
The report says Congress should re-examine the special status of the National Cancer Institute to avoid potential rifts between NCI and NIH. The cancer institute controls about 17% of the overall NIH budget and is led by a director appointed by the president, both of which are independent of the influence of the NIH director.
The committee does not recommend a wholesale consolidation of institutes and centers, as costs would outweigh benefits. Also, the committee says that increasing the authority of the NIH director and providing NIH leaders with more flexibility to make organizational changes would be a more effective way to build responsiveness.
However, the committee does recommend combining the National Institute on Drug Abuse with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as well as a merger between the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the National Human Genome Research Institute.
A formal, public process, initiated by Congress or the NIH director, should be developed to review whether institutes and centers should be added, eliminated, or combined with others, the report says.