From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research

My Time as Deputy Director for Intramural Research: The Recent Years

Michael Gottesman

Michael Gottesman

In my previous perspective for The NIH Catalyst on “The Early Years” of my term as deputy director for intramural research (DDIR), I described how I became DDIR almost 30 years ago, and my initial efforts to sustain an environment strongly supportive of the research and training missions of the intramural research program (IRP). My term began with some substantial changes in the review and oversight of intramural science reflecting the recommendations of the 1994 Marks-Cassell report on the IRP. The changes were mostly related to the role of the boards of scientific counselors (BSCs), the tenure review process, the search process, and the creation of a continuum of training opportunities and career-development trajectories.

In more recent years, there has been a gradual evolution of the IRP to reflect our need to enhance team science, shared resources, and collaborations; build a community of increased diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA); and strengthen our clinical program including changes in the oversight of the NIH Clinical Center and human subjects research, and paying more attention to the career development of our clinical researchers.

Some of these changes reflect outside reviews of the NIH IRP and the change in NIH leadership. After my initial appointment as DDIR in 1993 by then–NIH Director Harold Varmus, I have been privileged to work with two other NIH directors (Elias Zerhouni and Francis Collins) and three acting directors (Ruth Kirschstein, Raynard Kington, and Lawrence Tabak), all of whom were strong proponents of the IRP. During this period, there were several influential reviews of the IRP, including the 2004 report, the “NIH Director’s Blue Ribbon Panel on the Future of Intramural Clinical Research,” the 2016 “Red Team” report “Reducing Risk and Promoting Patient Safety for NIH Intramural Clinical Research,” and the 2014 Advisory Committee to the NIH Director report on the “Long-term Intramural Research Program (LT-IRP) Planning Working Group Report.” What all of these reports have in common was that they were initiated by the NIH director with the intent of ensuring the continuing excellence of research and the research environment at the NIH; they led to important changes in the IRP; and they reflect our absolute commitment to unbiased peer review.

I have become a cheerleader for team science during my term as DDIR. We modified the requirements for tenure at the NIH to include recognition of significant participation in research teams and created the NIH Director’s Challenge Awards to encourage trans-NIH collaborations and shared resources, which complemented the program initiated by then–Clinical Center Director John Gallin to support trans-NIH bench-to-bedside translational research activities. The board of scientific directors established the Shared Resources Subcommittee to provide core resources in support of the entire IRP including imaging facilities, training activities, and whole-genome molecular screening. The Collaborative Research Exchange provides a compendium of over 150 IRP cores and commercial resources for use by our scientists. A recent analysis indicated that from 2017 to 2020 approximately 71% of IRP scientists collaborated with scientists in other labs.

It is no secret that the demographics of the IRP do not yet reflect the diversity of the U.S. population. We now have a variety of approaches to improve the DEIA of IRP science. This effort began with programs for the central recruitment of tenure-track investigators (Stadtman Investigator program) and clinical tenure-track investigators (NIH–Lasker Clinical Research Scholars program). More recently, through shared contributions by all of our institutes and centers (ICs)and in cooperation with the first two Chief Officers for Scientific Workforce Diversity, Hannah Valantine and Marie Bernard, we created an important new cohort program, the Distinguished Scholars Program, to enhance the recruitment of scientists who have demonstrated a commitment to building a more diverse community at the NIH. These programs together have resulted in the substantial diversification of our tenure-track investigators at NIH. Over the past 10 years, the percentage of tenured and tenure-track investigators from under-represented groups at NIH has grown from 4.4% to 8% (and from 4.5% to 19% on the tenure-track alone). The percentage of women scientists at NIH has grown from 23% to 30% (and from 37% to 46% on the tenure-track). The NIH Equity Committee has produced detailed evaluations of diversity efforts in all of our ICs’ intramural programs, resulting in many valuable recommendations that have been embraced by our intramural leadership, including best practices for recruitment of scientific directors and standards for the evaluation of scientific directors, clinical directors, and laboratory and branch chiefs.

Ultimately, an increased emphasis on diversity as an essential component of creative, high-quality science must be embraced by all of our staff. This focus on inclusive excellence will require making achieving diversity a high priority goal for all of our intramural scientists. In addition to the DEIA rating, which is now part of every employee’s performance management appraisal program (PMAP), we now require that every BSC review and tenure review include a statement by the principal investigator of the role that they are playing in enhancing DEIA at the NIH.

This century began at NIH with the completion of the new Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center, as part of the overall refurbishment or replacement of close to 50% of our on-campus laboratory and clinical facilities during my time as DDIR. As a physician–scientist, I have paid particular attention to clinical activities at the NIH and the translation of laboratory science into clinical experiments (bench-to-bedside) and the encouragement of bedside-to-bench opportunities to learn more about human biology. The “Red Team” report caused us all to rethink the role of the Clinical Center as the world’s premier clinical research institution that also must provide the highest standard of clinical care while ensuring patient safety. Our staff rose capably to this challenge, continuing a proud tradition of excellence in all aspects of research and patient care. With the help of the DDIR’s deputy director for intramural clinical research (currently Janice Lee who is also the clinical director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research), we continue to work to establish appropriate recognition and career progression for our clinical faculty, including staff clinicians, staff scientists (clinical), tenure-track investigators, senior investigators, and senior clinicians. This effort has resulted in a career progression and much better delineated responsibilities for our staff clinicians and opportunities to conduct independent research.

Although the goal is still aspirational, under Janice Lee’s oversight with the help of Andy Baxevanis and Yang Fann, we are developing a Clinical Research Informatics Strategic Plan Initiative to provide interoperable systems for collection, analysis, and sharing of clinical research data. And, of course, after many years of trying to bring change to our human subjects research program, we hired Jonathan Green to run the Office of Human Subjects Research Protections. He accomplished what we thought might be impossible: the unification and harmonization of our 12 institutional review boards into one central office.

These accomplishments depended entirely on the outstanding team of NIH scientists and program directors in the Office of Intramural Research. All of my immediate senior staffers have strong backgrounds as working scientists, ensuring a deep understanding of the needs of our scientific staff. I want to express my deep gratitude to my principal deputy director, Richard Wyatt, with whom together we share 100 years of NIH experience and nearly every one of my responsibilities; to Roland Owens, director of research workforce development; Arlyn Garcia-Pérez, director of policy and analysis; Carl Hashimoto, director of faculty development; Charles Dearolf, director of program development and support; and Kathryn Partin, director of research integrity.

My next essay will address challenges and opportunities in the coming years for the intramural program. I will leave these as a bequest to my successor.