From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research

My Time as Deputy Director for Intramural Research: What the Future Holds

Michael Gottesman

Michael Gottesman

I’m excited that the next Deputy Director for Intramural Research (DDIR) will bring new energy to NIH’s intramural research program (IRP). In preparation for the transition to new leadership—including a new NIH Director—I have worked closely with NIH scientific and clinical directors to identify four areas of challenges and opportunities that will need to be addressed.

Increase support for the NIH Clinical Center

Although laboratory science is the foundation of the NIH IRP, the clinical translation of basic research at the NIH Clinical Center (CC) is what makes us the National Institutes of Health. The highly collaborative nature of the clinical and translational research conducted at NIH—first-in-human clinical trials, specialized resources, free clinical services that remove socioeconomic barriers to research and care, a focus on rare and refractory diseases, and a priority to train clinician–scientists—makes NIH both unique and endangered.

Recent challenges aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic include a declining hospital census at the CC, staffing shortages, and a reduction in research pharmaceutical services. Such challenges highlight the need for new approaches to support the CC, which is now funded through fees that ICs pay to use CC resources for their research; “taxes” levied on all ICs and the Office of the NIH Director to cover maintenance, salaries, and utilities; and a capital investment fund. There is an urgent need to establish a stable funding mechanism to provide appropriate support that is responsive to inflationary changes and surge capacity during biomedical emergencies while fostering initiatives that promote innovative research.

Improve NIH infrastructure: new facilities and maintenance

The NIH IRP comprises facilities in six U.S. states but mostly in Maryland and primarily in Bethesda, where more than 100 buildings are spread across 310 acres. Many of the buildings on the Bethesda campus date back to the 1940s and 1950s; older parts of the CC date back to the 1950s. The National Academies’ Committee on Assessing the Capital Needs of the NIH stated in their 2019 report (“Managing the NIH Bethesda Campus Capital Assets for Success in a Highly Competitive Global Biomedical Research Environment”) that “The buildings and facilities at the NIH Bethesda campus are in need of significant improvement and upgrading to sustain their current mission and ongoing functionality.”

The CC’s new Surgical, Radiology, and Laboratory Medicine wing, which is scheduled for completion in 2028, is a first step in the critical upgrading of NIH translational research facilities. For NIH to remain competitive and able to lead health care improvements for the American people, we must upgrade other facilities and build new ones that can house and support biomedical discoveries and innovative technologies. We need a facility that will allow for the translation of laboratory discoveries into preclinical models to prepare for first-in-human clinical research studies in the CC; facilities to enable bioengineering advances that are essential for responding to public health emergencies and for developing a new generation of therapeutics; and “smart” and “green” buildings.

Stimulate trans-NIH collaborations

Given the vast scope of intramural research and the NIH’s talent pool and other resources, we can do much more to encourage and support a myriad of exciting collaborative programs and projects. The NIH Office of Intramural Research (OIR) promotes shared resources, convenes the trans-NIH scientific interest groups, develops policies that encourage team science and collaborative activities, and uses the NIH Director’s Challenge and Innovation Funds to stimulate and coordinate collaborations among 24 independent, IC-based intramural programs. We have diverse—and advanced—imaging facilities, high-throughput screening resources, and centrally managed recruitment programs for tenure-track investigators that encourage collaboration (Earl Stadtman Investigators, Lasker Clinical Research Scholars, and Distinguished Scholars). My hope is that the new DDIR will not only continue to support collaborative activities, but will also find new ways to expand and enhance them.

Expand diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) efforts

We are broadening DEIA in the IRP in many ways. The OIR works closely with the Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, the Women Scientists Advisors, the NIH Equity Committee, the NIH UNITE initiative, and several other key NIH entities that are united in DEIA initiatives. OIR programs that have enhanced DEIA efforts the most include the Earl Stadtman Tenure-Track Investigators recruitment program, which has recruited talented individuals from traditionally marginalized groups; the Lasker Clinical Research Scholars Tenure-Track Program, which is 58% women; the Distinguished Scholars Program, launched in 2018 to recruit early and midcareer scientists dedicated to building a more diverse community of scientists at NIH; the Reasonable Accommodation Program, amended in 2020 to reaffirm the NIH’s responsibility in regard to accessibility for scientists with disabilities; the NIH Academy on Health Disparities, which offers postbacs the tools to address health-disparity issues; and many programs initiated and supported by the Office of Intramural Training and Education to provide opportunities for a more diverse population of trainees ranging from high-school students to postdoctoral fellows.

In addition, all NIH principal investigators are expected to explain to their Boards of Scientific Counselors and the Central Tenure Committee how they foster and promote a culture of belonging and inclusion within their labs and the NIH research community. I am confident that new leadership will continue to ensure that the IRP incorporates the principles of DEIA in all aspects of its mission of research and training.

Although my replacement has not yet been identified, I am sure that the new DDIR will help the IRP become better than ever. In the meantime, I fully intend to continue working with all of you as we make improvements in the IRP. We trust that even more progress will be made when the baton is passed to NIH’s next DDIR.