From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research

Long-term Planning for the Intramural Research Program: An Update

You have probably been wondering what has been happening with the long-term planning process for the Intramural Research Program (IRP). As you recall, we initiated this process over a year ago in response to concerns about the declining buying power of the NIH intramural budget, important changes in the way in which we conduct biomedical research, and the need to sustain (and enhance) translational and clinical research in NIH’s Clinical Center.

We are attempting to make this process as inclusive and transparent as possible and began by soliciting ideas from our entire scientific staff including the Assembly of Scientists. I have met many times with the scientific directors (SDs) as well as an ad hoc group of SDs, executive officers (EOs), and institute and center (IC) directors to formulate a process for long-term planning.

After five meetings with IC directors that included some smaller groups, we decided that the overall process would consist of three phases: (1) each IC would work with its Boards of Scientific Counselors (BSC) chairs, other outside expert advisors, and internal scientists to formulate IC-specific long-term plans; (2) the SDs and a small group of IC directors would synthesize these recommendations into trans-NIH initiatives; and (3) a subcommittee of the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD), co-chaired by Larry Tabak and Cato Laurencin, would review materials provided by these various groups and make recommendations to the ACD at its December 12, 2014, meeting.

This timeline was ambitious, and I want to thank all of you for providing your time and input during the first two phases of this process. We had a well-attended, historic meeting of BSC chairs, IC directors, SDs, clinical directors, and EOs on May 16, 2014, to compare “visions.” We noted some trans-NIH similarities and differences that represent the distinctive features of each IC.

After receiving the IC-specific reports on July 31, 2014, the SDs met and assembled a document entitled “The Future of the NIH Intramural Research Program: A Synthesis of Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities” that captured the trans-NIH features of all of the individual IC reports. This document is being reviewed and edited by the NIH Director’s Steering Committee of IC Directors.

The charge to the ACD has four major components:
• Recommend how the IRP should ensure its distinctive role in biomedical research and how it should differ from extramural research institutions.
• Identify areas of opportunity that the IRP should focus on in the next 10 years to take advantage of its distinctive features.
• Identify what needs to be done to ensure the sustainability of the IRP’s distinctive features, including the Clinical Center.
• Ensure the alignment of recommendations for the opportunities and needs in the IRP with the work of other ACD and internal NIH working groups regarding workforce demographics—age, sex, ethnic and racial diversity, and M.D.s versus Ph.D.s.

“The Future of the IRP” document, when completed, will address all these components and will have had input from each IC (with outside expert advice) and NIH as a whole. In particular, we will emphasize the IRP’s distinctive characteristics that have evolved over time and in response to several outside reviews: the Clinical Center; the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s and National Library of Medicine’s databases; the sheer size and scope of research in the IRP; our ability to respond quickly to public-health emergencies (witness the Ebola vaccine trials taking place in the Clinical Center as this issue of the NIH Catalyst goes to press); our retrospective, investigator-oriented review process that should encourage high-risk, high-impact research; and the training environment that has populated academic medical centers with outstanding clinician-scientists and basic-scientists.

We have emphasized that the IRP environment includes a broad, critical mass of expertise consisting of approximately 1,000 principal investigators, 3,500 postdocs, and other trainees who can collaborate quickly and share resources across Institute and lab divisions.

The many discussions that went into the preparation of “The Future of the IRP” document helped frame the areas of scientific opportunity in which we are best poised to succeed. Although these areas are by no means intended to constrain the large range of scientific challenges embraced by our scientific staff, they are helpful in planning for facilities and recruitments.

The current list includes the development of precision medicine to enhance disease diagnosis, prevention, and treatment; cell-based therapies; research on the human microbiome and drug resistance; RNA biology and therapeutics; vaccine development; neuroscience and contributions to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative; inflammatory diseases, clinical and molecular and cellular imaging; computational and structural biology; natural products as tools for basic research and treatment of disease; and the development of new animal models.

The NIH IRP seeks to be a dynamic research environment that will attract and train new generations of imaginative, highly talented, and diverse scientists who will lead biomedical research into the 21st century; reveal new principles of biology; provide a new understanding of human disease; and change treatment and prevention paradigms.

The long-term planning effort to achieve this vision is still a work in progress. The opportunity for all of us to consider what kind of future the intramural program should have is valuable in its own right. There will be more to say later in the fall.