Now that NIH NCATS Is Replacing NCRR, Where Have The NCRR Programs Gone?

It has been over a year since NIH Director Francis Collins announced the creation of the National Center for Advancing Translational Science. From the NIH website:  “The goal of NCATS will be to develop new ways of doing translational research that the public and private research and development communities can adopt. Innovations that come out of NCATS are intended to cut down the time or expense needed to develop a new drug, or allow us to predict which compounds will work best and be safe earlier in development.”

CLICK HERE for more information on the mission of NCATS.

One casualty of the formation of NCATS has been the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR.) Where have the NCRR programs gone? Two have wound up at NIGMS. From a NIGMS blog post by Judith Greenberg:

“In the first major reorganization of NIGMS since 1994, we have just established two new divisions that bring together existing NIGMS programs with programs transferred to NIGMS from the former National Center for Research Resources (NCRR). These changes give us the opportunity to create synergies and strengthen efforts in areas that are central to our mission.

“The Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity (TWD) merges NIGMS research training programs with activities that were previously in the Institute’s Division of Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE). It also houses the Institutional Development Award program from NCRR. Our decision to create this division was informed by input we received from many stakeholders, and it responds to key goals and recommendations of our strategic plans. Its director is Clif Poodry, who formerly directed the MORE Division.

“The Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology (BBCB) combines programs of our Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (CBCB) with biomedical technology programs from NCRR. Karin Remington, who previously directed CBCB, is the director of this new division.

“You might be wondering what the reorganization will mean for your current or future funding. The amount of money allocated to programs in the new divisions will not change as a result of the reorganization or the transfer of NCRR programs to NIGMS. The review of applications will stay the same, too, as will most of the staff who manage the grants and review the applications.”

 

What does the FY13 NIH Congressional Justification Say?

Now that I have recovered (more or less) from some particularly hellish Cycle I submissions, I can turn my attention to other matters until the Cycle II crunch begins. February is the time that the Appropriation process begins at NIH. On February 13, the Administration released their Congressional Justification for FY13, which runs from October 1, 2012 – September 30, 2013. Click here for the full report.

President Obama is requesting $30.86 billion for FY13, essentially freezing the budget at FY12 levels. There is a great deal of language in the report concerning the economy—specifically, NIH’s efforts to reduce health care costs and disease burden on society, as well as the economic growth associated with the research enterprise supported by NIH. From the cover letter:

“With continued support, NIH investigators will help to revolutionize patient care, reduce the growth of health care costs, and generate significant national economic growth… NIH must continue to seek innovative solutions to ensure rapid advances in science even in these uncertain economic times. Strategic investments will support research with the highest potential for improving public health and to preserve the scientific workforce… Investment in the future of public health has never been more important. In addition to the health benefits to all Americans in the future, such investment can play a key role in reinvigorating the economy now. Numerous economic analyses have illustrated the role that NIH research plays in creating jobs and spurring economic growth. In the face of growing global competition investment in biomedical and behavioral research and the scientific workforce will propel scientific discovery for the benefit of human health and the U.S. economy, both now and in the future.”

A call-out box early in the report states:

Every dollar of NIH funding generates about $2.21 in economic output.” (In Your Own Backyard, Families USA, June 2008.) 

AND

In fiscal year 2010, NIH extramural research funding generated $68.035 billion in new economic activity nationwide and supported more than 487,900 jobs.” (An Economic Engine, United for Medical Research, Spring 2011.)

In a budget briefing on Feb 15, NIH Director Francis Collins stated that despite the budget freeze, the President’s budget proposal would allow a 7% increase in new and competing RPGs in FY13. He stated that this increase would be made possible because there was an increased turnover in grants (i.e., decrease in the duration of grants because “science is moving more quickly” than it has in the past), together with a 1% reduction to noncompeting grants.

Other items of interest in the report:

  • Funds are sought from the Public Health Prevention Fund (part of the Affordable Care Act) to make a significant increase in Alzheimer’s research.
  • The ratio of funding between basic and applied research (54% basic, 46% applied) remains constant -as has been the case for several years.
  • The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) would receive an 11% increase to $639 million, which includes significant funding ($50 million) for the Cures Acceleration Network.
  • The overall Health and Human Services budget request is 8.5% lower than last year.
  • The request for the National Science Foundation is up 5% to $7.373 billion.
  • The request for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) is up by roughly 1% to $408.8 million. However, the proposal cuts investigator-initiated research grants by more than 31%, and comparative effectiveness research grants by 41%.

The Administration’s Congressional Justification is drawing criticism from the research community, who are quick to point out that when adjust for inflation, NIH funding has been in decline since 2003. Yet up until now, NIH has been spared the devastating budget cuts seen in many agencies in the past few years. It is likely that their luck has run out, given that virtually all discretionary spending, and in particular all aspects of the Affordable Care Act, risk being slashed dramatically when the budget request reaches the Hill.

Click here for more coverage provided by the American Association for Dental Research.

The New National Center For Advancing Translational Sciences

NIH Director Francis Collins is looking to leave his mark on the NIH: He has proposed a highly-controversial National Center For Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). On January 22, the New York Times reported on it.

The NIH Office of the Director responded with a document entitled “Separating Fact From Fiction”:

The five main points of the OD piece are: 1) NCATS will be assembled primarily from existing programs; 2) NCATS is not intended to be a drug company; 3) The final budget is unknown; 4) There is no plan to “cannibalize” (the word used in The Times piece) the budgets of other ICs to form NCATS; and 5) NIH remains committed to basic, translational, and clinical research.

It is a fact that it costs a tidy sum to bring a drug to market, and as a result research in the pharmaceutical industry has been declining for 15 years. Whether the government can step into that gap successfully and without damaging other research enterprises is hotly debated. Collins is quoted in The Times piece as saying, “I am a little frustrated to see how many of the discoveries that do look as though they have therapeutic implications are waiting for the pharmaceutical industry to follow through with them.”

He goes on, “There are some people that would say this is not the time to do something bold and ambitious because the budget is so tight. But we would be irresponsible not to take advantage of scientific opportunity, even if it means tightening in other places.”

Such language has many researchers deeply concerned, especially given that the NIH may be facing budget cuts in FY12. Because Congress recently expanded the powers of an NIH Director, NCATS would be realized as early as October.

Scientists aren’t the only ones who are concerned. A January 27th piece in Science magazine states that Congress has demanded answers.

And a January 28 piece in Science indicates some lack of internal support at NIH. This piece quotes Yale Chemistry Professor Scott Miller as stating, “If the reason [to create NCATS] is to derisk opportunities for industry, I think that’s quite bizarre and contrary to the entrepreneurial spirit.” James Stevens, a senior research fellow at Lilly Labs, adds, “If there is any organization that is slower and less agile than industry, it is the federal government.”

I hope that people who are involved in the biomedical research community in this country will stay informed, discuss, debate, and publicly comment on these developments.