The director of the National Institutes of Health has released the
forward-looking "NIH Roadmap for Medical Research".
Intended to guide medical research in the 21st century, the plan includes
a strong interdisciplinary research component. The current and past
NIH directors, Elias A. Zerhouni, and Harold Varmus, appeared at a Senate
and House committees joint hearing last week, with a second appearance
by Varmus at an afternoon briefing sponsored by the American Chemical
Society. In conjunction with the release of the Roadmap, NIH issued
a Request for Applications for exploratory centers for interdisciplinary
The NIH plan, ( http://nihroadmap.nih.gov
) was developed after a series of meetings and included the input of
more than 300 individuals from academia, industry, government and the
public. Written for the general public, the relatively brief plan is
organized around three central themes: New Pathways to Discovery, Research
Teams of the Future, and Re-engineering Clinical Research. Physical
science research is included in both the discovery and research team
"We have made remarkable progress in medical research in recent
decades, and NIH-led research has changed the landscape of many diseases.
However, very real - and very urgent - needs remain. NIH is now drawing
all fields of science together in a concerted effort to meet these challenges
head-on," said Zerhouni in describing his vision for the NIH and
the medical research it supports. The director had an opportunity to
expand upon his views at an October 2 joint hearing of the Senate Health,
Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Energy and Commerce
Committee. As an indicator of the great interest there is in NIH, this
hearing was held in a very large Senate hearing room that had few empty
NIH's budget doubled during the last five years, and the opening comments
of Senate chairman Judd Gregg (R-NH) centered on how to determine if
this money is being effectively used. Other comments from the senior
members of the two committees concerned an administration proposal to
outsource some NIH positions and the financial impact of biodefense
programs on other research programs.
While most of this hearing centered on health related questions and
how to best manage NIH's 27 institutes and centers, attention was also
given to interdisciplinary research, with Zerhouni saying that disciplinary
"silos" need to broken. Varmus did not raise this issue in
his testimony at this hearing, but has been quite forthright in previous
statements about the value of research in the physical sciences to medical
advances, as he was later in the day. Also testifying was Harold Shapiro,
chairman of the Committee on the Organizational Structure of NIH, whose
remarks were largely devoted to management. Most of the Members' questions
were dealt with medical research and NIH management. Chairman Gregg
did ask Zerhouni if the peer review mechanism encouraged research silos;
the director replied that this is a core question about future NIH management.
The importance of physical sciences research to medical advances was
addressed directly during an afternoon briefing at which Senator Lamar
Alexander (R-TN) and Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) offered opening remarks.
Succinctly describing the current situation, Bingaman said that while
there is a consensus on the value of life sciences research, with a
resulting funding increase, "we have not had that same consensus
on the physical sciences." There has been lip service, Bingaman
continued, but it has not been matched by needed funding. Efforts to
find a consensus continue, he said, adding that there will be "many
opportunities to correct the deficiencies."
The briefing's moderator, Stephen Merrill, cited a National Research
Council report that he was instrumental in producing (/fyi/2001/115.html
). Merrill is the Executive Director of the National Academies' Board
on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy. One of the findings of
the report, published in 2001, was that:
This decline in funding has been worrisome to both the National Academies
and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (/fyi/2003/007.html),
Merrill said. Funding reductions for the physical sciences have resulted
in fewer graduate students and a leveling-off of publications, he added.
Varmus spoke of a speech he gave five years ago to the American Physical
Society describing the relationship between physical and life sciences.
Describing the interdisciplinary component in the NIH roadmap, Varmus
predicted that its success would depend upon the nation's mood, or willingness,
to move ahead into new fields of research.
Also appearing at this briefing was Ray Orbach, Director of DOE's Office
of Science. Orbach outlined the contributions that light sources and
accelerators make in biology and medicine, how DOE research was fundamental
in DNA sequencing, its work on an artificial retina, and the history
of his office's partnership with NIH.
FYI #130 will excerpt pertinent sections of the NIH Roadmap for the
Future, and will include information on the NIH's Request for Applications
for exploratory centers for interdisciplinary research