August 4, 2003
Volume 81, Number 31
CENEAR 81 31 p. 8
ISSN 0009-2347


National Academies report looks at agency's organizational structure


To meet future biomedical and health challenges, NIH must make some key changes to its organizational structure, says a congressionally mandated report released last week by the National Academies.

Although the report doesn't call for major consolidation within the agency, it does recommend small-scale institute and center consolidations, increased authority for the NIH director, and new initiatives in line with today's complex scientific problems.

APPRAISERS Shapiro discusses the report to change NIH with committee member Debra Lappin, president of Princeton Partners Ltd.
The report, "Enhancing the Vitality of the National Institutes of Health: Organizational Change To Meet New Challenges," comes in response to congressional concerns that NIH's large and complicated structure has made it too unwieldy to deal with emerging research issues, explained committee Chairman Harold T. Shapiro, president emeritus and professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University.

To promote multidisciplinary research, the report recommends that the NIH director set up and administer "trans-NIH" strategic initiatives that cut across its institutes and centers. These initiatives would be funded by a 5% contribution (growing to 10% over time) from each institute's budget. Shapiro cited proteomics and obesity studies as examples of potential trans-NIH initiatives.

The report also recommends that Congress provide the NIH director with $100 million to fund a program targeting high-risk, large-payoff research.

Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and former NIH director, supports the idea of special allocations for high-risk research but is less convinced about the trans-NIH initiative.

The trans-NIH initiative must provide enough teeth to get the desired branches involved but not so much of a bite that 5 to 10% of the NIH budget is under control of the director alone, Varmus tells C&EN. "That's a lot of money."

On consolidation, the report suggests mergers: fusing the National Institute on Drug Abuse with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism and combining the National Human Genome Research Institute with the National Institute of General Medical Sciences--one of the major supporters of chemistry research at NIH.

"The fact that there is an interest in doing some consolidation suggests that much more thought should have been given to what a more dramatic reorganization would have looked like," Varmus says. Effectively operating a organization as complex as NIH is not an easy task, he explains, as evidenced by current NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni's recent announcement of a plan for an executive committee of only 10 institute and center members--as opposed to all 27 unit directors--who will have a say in major managerial decisions.

The agency sees the report as a starting point for a discussion on improving its structure, Raynard S. Kington, deputy director of NIH, comments to C&EN. "We need to think about a process that allows us to reassess how we do things and how we are organized here at NIH."


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