NIH moves quickly to create new translational center and to remove programs from NCRR

APA is concerned about the fate of the Primate Research Centers and possible disruption to Clinical and Translation Science Awards

The NIH’s Scientific Management Review Board (SMRB) released a proposal in December 2010, for the creation of an NIH center to speed translation of research findings, to be called the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). Along with the creation of this center, NIH proposes to dismantle and reassign the programs of its National Center for Research Resources (NCRR). Deputy Director Larry Tabak and Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health Human Development Director Alan Guttmacher were chosen to lead NIH’s Task Force on NCRR, which released a ‘straw model’  this month showing where the current programs of NCRR would be relocated. 

According to an announcement from Tabak, “The Task Force efforts have been heavily informed by input from NCRR staff members who are most knowledgeable about each program. These meetings helped us to understand more clearly the functions of the NCRR programs, how they work with each other, and how they work with other programs across the NIH. The Straw Model is just that, a straw model, it’s designed to be poked at; we expect it to be critically evaluated by all of our stakeholders, including NCRR and other NIH staff, members of the extramural community, and the public.”

At the NCRR Advisory Council meeting in late January, Tabak made a brief presentation and took questions for an hour. Dr. Tabak said the new NIH website “feedback.nih.gov” had received, at that point, about 1300 comments about the National Center to Advance Translational Science (NCATS) and NCRR. The proposed NCRR dismantling is moving very quickly. While the straw model is to be a vehicle for discussion, and may change, time for input is limited: the NCRR Task Force will present a report/recommendation to the NIH’s SMRB in a teleconference on Feb. 23. 

APA members have raised two primary concerns about the reorganization. The first concern is that CTSAs are a relatively new program, only now undergoing competitive review, and removal to a new unit could be disruptive to the program’s growth. Second, many who have worked in and with NCRR’s Primate Research Centers (PRCs) are lobbying hard for the Centers to be added to the new NCATS unit, rather than placed in a new, as-yet-unnamed infrastructure unit within the Office of the Director. NCRR funded $36-38 million in behavioral and social sciences research in 2008 and 2009. 

About those concerns, Tabak assures jittery CTSA participants that the new translational unit is one of NIH Director Francis Collins’ highest priorities, which is why NIH is pushing to get NCATS up and running on October 1, 2011 , and into the Fiscal Year 2012 budget. NIH’s goal is to keep the CTSA budget intact and reassign the staff who manage the CTSA programs to the new unit if possible.  There are two preliminary NCATS working groups, one that is primarily composed of institute directors, and another led by a member of the NIH Director’s Advisory Council (ACD). The internal committee is putting together a proposal of how NCATS will be organized and run. The ACD working group will report to the Director’s advisory committee in March, 2011. 

Tabak and his group have heard many comments from the Primate Research Centers about their desire to remain with the CTSAs in the new translational unit. The reason is that NCRR worked deliberately to ensure that the CTSAs and Primate Centers were collaborating to help speed translation of research findings, with conferences, grants, etc. Some CTSAs have joint programs with the PRCs and pharmaceutical companies to develop new therapeutics. Tabak was asked again at the NCRR Advisory Council meeting whether it might be possible for those programs to stay together. Tabak was noncommittal but not encouraging. He said that while some of the PRC programs are focused on translation, some aren’t: and moving the program to NCATS would create other issues for programs like NCRR’s Chimpanzee Resource Centers. There would be pressure for all of NCRR’s primate-centered programs to remain together in the same organizational unit, since they are resources for all of NIH.

Tabak was asked why NCRR is being dismantled. He responded that the removal of a large program from NCRR to create the new NCATS center (NCRR’s Clinical Translation Science Awards, or CTSAs) provided an unusual opportunity. He said that nobody would put the disparate programs of NCRR together by design (e.g. imaging science programs with Chimp Haven, the chimpanzee retirement program). He repeatedly used the phrase “scientific adjacencies” to refer to the need to put programs together where they would most benefit by adjacency to other programs. 

The Advisory Council for the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) raised concerns at its meeting on January 26, 2011, about the dismantling of NCRR. Jeremy Berg, Director of NIGMS, was the only member of the SMRB to vote against the creation of NCATS and the dismantling of NCRR. He told the council that he didn’t understand how the dismantling of NCRR “solves more problems than it creates.” Members of the NIGMS council are drafting a letter to Dr. Collins raising additional concerns about the reorganization.

APA encourages its members who benefit from these programs to speak out and let NIH know your views and any concerns about the proposed reorganization. Comments are being accepted on the National Institutes of Health website.