Despite criticisms focused on the speed of the process, the National Institutes of Health is moving ahead with the creation of the proposed National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, and the elimination of the National Center for Research Resources.
In response to some public feedback, NIH has amended its straw model of how to redistribute NCRR programs to other centers and institutes at the agency. The model, which was first proposed in January, moved the Clinical and Translational Science Awards program to the new agency. In addition, the Research Centers in Minority Institutes program was separated from the Institutional Development Award program — with which it shares a staff and mission — to join the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, while IDeA was placed with many other NCRR programs in what NIH dubbed an "interim infrastructure unit."
At the beginning of February, two US senators, Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who chairs the Senate appropriations committee, and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and NIH Director Francis Collins expressing their "concern and opposition" to the notion of moving the IDeA program from NCRR and divorcing it from RCMI. Fourteen other senators joined Inouye and Begich in a second letter expressing concern "that the pace of decision-making on this reorganization has not allowed for a thorough analysis of how this reorganization will impact critical programs, including IDeA."
In a letter, Collins responded that "NIH has undertaken a transparent planning process involving consultation with a large number of experts and stakeholders."
In the new model, released by the NCRR task force in late February, a few programs were shifted around. The task force, led by Lawrence Tabak, says it considered three placement criteria: the "scientific synergies," the "goodness of fit," and how disruptive the move might be. In these final interim recommendations, the IDeA program is shifted to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences while RCMI remains with NIMHD; the shared and high-end instrumentation program now falls under the auspices of the interim unit, among other changes.
At a session on the future of NCRR at the recent Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities meeting in San Antonio, Texas, Wake Forest University's Mark Lively called this shifting of programs a bit of "horse trading." While his group, the National Advisory Research Resources Council, which advises NCRR, acknowledges the need for better translational research at NIH, Lively says his group is also concerned over how the decision to create NCATS and eliminate NCRR was made. "We are questioning the manner in which it was done," Lively said, later adding that the process was neither thorough, nor open, nor transparent.
During a teleconference coinciding with the release of the final recommendations, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute's Thomas Kelly asked "whether it would be appropriate for the SMRB to undertake a real in-depth study of whether NCRR should be essentially eliminated."
Tabak replied that the task force considered the impact NCATS would have on NCRR and other institutes during six formal meetings and in an e-mail debate. "I would say that the group did do a very in-depth analysis of the various programs and [we] believe that we have come up with recipient homes for these programs that will maximize the opportunity for new scientific programs to emerge, new scientific opportunities to emerge," he said.
However, as Lively noted at ABRF, the fate of NCRR and even NCATS is further clouded by budget considerations. The US federal budget for fiscal year 2011, which began last October, is still being debated on Capitol Hill. Nevertheless, NIH says the new NCATS institute will be up and running this coming October.