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Montana Lawmaker 'Troubled' by NIH Translational Center

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The National Institutes of Health's plan to develop a new center that will focus on translational research and disband the National Center for Research Resources has chafed a key Montana lawmaker.

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R –Mont.) said in a recent letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that he is worried about how the creation of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences will affect an NCRR-funded research network in his state. He also is "troubled that the details" of the NCATS budget plan are not in the White House's 2012 budget.

Rehberg, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies — which handles NIH funding — said he is "very troubled" that NIH "has already taken steps to start the search for a new director of NCATS" before Congress has approved its budget.

He was referring to remarks made by NIH Director Francis Collins at recent meeting that staffing decisions about NCATS, including the hunt for a head for the institute are underway.

Although the plan for NCATS has not been incorporated into an update of President Barack Obama's 2012 budget proposal, two weeks ago NIH submitted to the House of Representatives its updated budget plan.

Under the revised budget, NCATS would receive $721.6 million, with most of that funding coming from NCRR programs, which would have received $1.3 billion through the original White House budget proposal.

Since the plan to create NCATS by breaking down NCRR's constituent parts was approved by NIH in December, it has received criticism for being a hurried effort that could impact NCRR-funded institutions and researchers around the country, although NIH leadership has presented its plan to retain the center's programs but move them to other institutes.

"It is important to ensure any plan maintains the current scope of the programs and expertise that have functioned well" within NCRR, said Rehberg.

Rehberg's state of Montana has received NCRR funding since 2001 to establish research infrastructure and fund research, including a 2009 round of funding from the Institutional Development Award program.

Montana State University won NCRR funding of $17.5 million through the IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program to lead the state-wide network from 2009 to 2014. That program is aimed at promoting, developing, and coordinating research resources and expertise that will expand the research opportunities and increase expertise in states that historically have been less likely to receive NIH funding, mostly rural states.

Under NIH's revamped budget plan, the IDeA program would be moved to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and would receive a budget of $230.6 million.

"It seems premature to take these steps in advance of an official presidential request, let alone required congressional action," Rehberg stated in the letter. "I suggest NIH cease all action related to establishing NCATS until the President submits a formal request and congressional action is completed."

NIH said that it has received Rehberg's letter and is preparing a response to his questions.

"As part of the planning for the proposed Center, we need to prepare for the recruitment of a director by taking initial steps, such as assembling a search committee," John Burklow, NIH communications director, said in a statement sent to GenomeWeb Daily News. "This is a standard process for all Institute and Center director appointments. While we need to start our search for outstanding leaders, we will not hire an NCATS director until NCATS has been formally established."

If NIH were to put its NCATS plans on hold until a budget is passed by Congress , it could be very difficult to meet Collins' aim to have the new institute launched by the beginning of the next fiscal year.

The budget for 2011, which was due before October 2010, did not pass until mid-April of this year.