NICHD acting director Alan Guttmacher outlines “vision process” for future research

The NICHD acting director has described steps the institute will take – including a request for stakeholder input – to achieve scientific goals and meet public health needs

By Karen Studwell

At the June 2010 meeting of the National Advisory Child Health and Human Development Council of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), Acting Director Alan Guttmacher provided an update on both the National Children’s Study (NCS) and the institute’s new “Vision Process.” Council members also heard an overview of the current research priorities of the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research (NCMRR) from the Center’s Director, Michael Weinrich.

According to Guttmacher, nationwide recruitment of participants for the NCS has been postponed until Fiscal Year 2012 as the recruitment strategies utilized by the study’s Vanguard Centers have led to lower than expected enrollments and would cost too much to be implemented across all study sites. Therefore, ten sites are planning to test three different recruitment strategies across different settings. In explaining this delay, Guttmacher emphasized that the study design, which initially included random sampling, was properly created by the study’s planners but that the implementation needed to be driven by the recruitment data. As Congressional leaders have expressed concern about the projected budget for the NCS, initially projected to cost $2 billion over the life of the study, NIH is hoping to accumulate more data by FY2011 in order to more accurately project what the costs will be.

Following Guttmacher’s overview, Michael Weinrich presented the NCMRR’s new vision of the future of medical rehabilitation, which recognizes the need to move rehabilitation research into practice faster, to move research into communities, and to move contemporary science into work on rehabilitation. Weinrich specifically mentioned the need to incorporate learning theory and psychological methods into the rehabilitation field with a focus on finding novel ways to produce and sustain behavioral changes. Other priority research areas include pain and fatigue, plasticity and recovery, and assistive technologies.

A major topic of Council discussion was NICHD’s recently announced “Vision Process,” which Guttmacher described as an ambitious plan to create a scientific vision statement for the institute. Emphasizing that this is not a review of the current NICHD portfolio, Guttmacher stated that the goal of the Vision Process is to develop a “realistic but ambitious agenda” to achieve critical scientific goals and meet pressing public health needs. By focusing primarily on future scientific opportunities, rather than simply building incrementally on current research programs, he is hopeful that NICHD can identify what advances could be made in the next decade, and what shorter-term scientific goals should be achieved in pursuit of those advances.

The institute would like the input of a wide range of stakeholders, including scientists, new investigators, external organizations, NICHD staff, as well as other NIH institutes. To gather that input, NICHD is planning a series of workshops and other opportunities for the various constituencies, organized around a set of nine themes and cross-cutting issues, which were developed by NICHD staff and scientific boards. The nine themes are: development, plasticity, cognition, behavior, reproduction, pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes, developmental origins of health and disease, environment, and diagnostics and therapeutics. Recognizing that some topics cut across many of these themes, additional crosscutting issues include: systems biology, training and mentoring, animal and computational models, differences/disparities across populations, stem cells, epigenetics, bioinformatics, analytical and measurement tools and methods, bioethics, biotechnologies/ bioengineering including assistive and related technologies, implementation science, nutrition, global health, prevention, and developmental trajectory.

NICHD will likely begin holding the first of nine workshops in September 2010 to receive advice and contributions from external stakeholders and plans to solicit comments on the process through January 2011. After synthesizing these contributions into a draft scientific vision statement, NICHD will hold a large multidisciplinary meeting, which will include other NIH institutes, to further refine the vision statement in time for review at the June 2011 Council meeting. Further revisions to the plan will be undertaken by NICHD staff with the goal of finalizing it by August 2011 and submitting it to a major scientific journal for publication.

APA as a stakeholder organization will provide input on the contribution of the behavioral sciences to NICHD’s scientific vision and encourages individual behavioral scientists to submit their ideas as well. You may share your thoughts with APA by e-mailing Karen Studwell, Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer. A videocast of the full June Council meeting is available online.

Karen Studwell, JD, is Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer in the APA Science Government Relations Office. Her work includes advocacy for psychological research at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.