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NIH Policy Zerhouni’s RoadMap to “Turbo Charge” the National Institutes of Health


NIH chief Elias Zerhouni has a new plan that should be good news for researchers prone to pitching unconventional ideas and those working in interdisciplinary systems biology teams. The NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, to be funded with $2.1 billion over the next five years — $130 million of that in FY 2004 — includes more than two dozen new initiatives under three main themes: New Pathways to Discovery, Research Teams of the Future, and Re-engineering the Clinical Research Enterprise.

The roadmap, which comes just two months after the Institute of Medicine issued a report recommending a restructuring of NIH, aims to fill in major gaps in biomedical research that no single agency can tackle alone, according to Zerhouni. He stresses that he wants to see the stringency and scrutiny of the peer-review process applied to the entire NIH portfolio. More than 300 biomedical experts in academia, industry, government, and the public had input into the plan.

NHGRI director Francis Collins says of the new initiative, “We love this stuff.” Collins’ agency’s own five-year plans includes goals that he says “were outside our ability to do alone, and we needed broad cross-institute collaboration” to achieve.

Specifically, grouped under the theme of New Pathways to Discovery are Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, Structural Biology, Building Blocks and Pathways, Molecular Libraries and Molecular Imaging, and Nanomedicine. Among resources the agency speaks about developing are an improved computational infrastructure for biomedical research, libraries of chemical molecules, new molecular and cellular imaging tools, and nano-scale technology devices for viewing and interacting with basic life processes.

In addition, the plan creates the new position “director’s liaison for public-private partnership,” and sets aside funds specifically for high-risk research. Those research awards will be made in amounts of $500,000 per year for five-year periods. Collins says that this initiative comes in response to the peer-review process, which favors lower-risk research. “We haven’t served innovators well,” he says.

Additional conventional research funding opportunities will exist in four main areas: metabolomics technology development, exploratory centers for interdisciplinary research, national technology centers for networks and pathways, and national centers for biomedical computing. Some initiatives will be funded right away. Other areas, including interdisciplinary research centers, will receive planning grants for the first few years, according to Collins.

— Adrienne J. Burke


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