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NA Report Urges Trans-NIH Proteomics Initiatives; Institutes to Fork Over Cash

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When the Board on Life Sciences of the National Academies released its 100-plus page report on NIH reorganization last week, the proposed merger between the National Human Genome Research Institute and the National Institute of General Medical Studies got most of the attention — leaving few observers to notice that proteomics played at least as significant a role in the report.

The report, entitled “Enhancing the Vitality of the National Institutes of Health: Organizational Change to Meet New Challenges,” recommended the creation and funding of “trans-NIH initiatives” — large, coordinated, “high priority” multi-institute projects — and it named proteomics as one of two major areas in which such an initiative could be applied.

The idea of this broad program, according to the report, would be to eliminate overlapping administrative costs, facilitate communication and cooperation among institutes, and pool resources to fund tools that would be applicable to many different proteomics projects. If an institute already were funding a proteomics initiative, that initiative could be rolled into the trans-NIH initiative and would count as that institute’s contribution to the larger initiative — but only after changes had been made to help integrate the work with that of other institutes.

“Why should every institute be developing tools to pursue their own interest in proteomics when it could be much more efficient and effective for them to do it in some sort of integrated way?” Fran Sharples, director of the board on life sciences at the National Academies, and one of the authors of the report, explained to ProteoMonitor.

Such integration will not only need the approval of the NIH and Congress, which have so far been mum on whether they will embrace the report’s suggestions. It will also require infrastructure and funding that currently do not exist and that Congress would have to approve.

One set of recommendations that is expected to meet resistance is the directive to have institutes and centers ante up funds for this trans-NIH initiative, and to give the NIH director the additional authority to insure that the institutes participate, both with their own resources and with their own funding. “Each institute and center should be required to reserve a substantial portion of its budget for such participation, starting initially at a few percent, but increasing over the next four to five years to 10 percent or more if initial efforts prove successful,” the report stated [emphasis added]. The committee recommended that this donation be held “in escrow,” meaning that control over the money would remain, in theory, with the individual institute, but only the NIH director would have the authority to authorize its release once it had “affirm[ed] that the unit has committed its expenditure for one or more of the identified trans-NIH initiatives of relevance to it.”

According to Sharples, requiring the contribution would be essential to making the initiative work. “Unless Congress agrees that the director has the wherewithal to actually cause the institute directors to pay attention and contribute their percentage shares — if it remains voluntary — it could be problematic,” Sharples said. Sharples also cited an accompanying budget increase as important. “If Congress doesn’t give the director the budget and person power to be able to run the process, it becomes another unfunded mandate,” she said.

Inter-institute cooperation is not new. In fact, the report found that various institutes already co-fund about 20 percent of all new awards. And trans-NIH initiatives have been tried before, though with limited success due to their voluntary nature.

In the case of proteomics, more and more institutes are already starting their own initiatives, so they may not see a requirement to put aside funds for proteomics as particularly onerous (see PM 7-18-03). But this doesn’t mean that compulsory sharing will be welcomed. “All NIH institutes have their own level of tunnel vision … and each institute expects that whatever technology is developed will be applied to their favorite problem,” said Thomas Kodadek, professor of internal medicine and molecular biology and director of an NHLBI-funded proteomics center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Kodadek predicted that the reception among individual institutes to pooling their projects might be chilly. But this view isn’t just selfishness, Kodadek said. “[With proteomics] we’re still at the point of developing basic technology, but eventually we will get to a point where we’re going to be mature enough to actually do real biology with this stuff.” At that point, Kodadek said, each institute would naturally want to use the technology to study its own area of diseases — rendering the inter-institute cooperation less helpful.

Garry Nolan, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University and a director of Stanford’s NHLBI-funded proteomics center, agreed that institutes’ work could suffer. “I would hate to see this initiative take away the inertia that can be accomplished by individual institutes,” Nolan said. Nolan compared the trans-NIH initiatives to transnational companies that sometimes become unwieldy. At the same time, he noted, large companies with more resources can accomplish certain things that small companies cannot. “To the extent that they can balance the ability to provide large-scale funding by the pooling of needed resources and the prevention of duplication of effort, that’s a good thing,” Nolan said. Still, he said, “Proteomics for the heart is not the same as proteomics for a blood disorder.”

Yet both Nolan and Kodadek pointed out that there were some areas where having more resources available and more institute transparency would be good for proteomics. Both the committee report and Nolan cited bioinformatics as an area in which the pooling of resources could be helpful to everyone working in proteomics, and all sides agreed that there is other infrastructure that could be shared.

None of the institute directors sponsoring current individual proteomics initiatives agreed to comment on the report as of press time, and Don Ralbovsky, the NIH communications director who deals with queries about the report would say only that it is “early in the game” to say anything about the responses of individual institutes, and that the NIH was “studying the report.” Sharples clearly feared that the institutes would react negatively, and the report itself warned that if budget increases did not accompany the new initiatives, “there will likely be resistance in the early years … by institutes that claim difficulty in meeting their commitments.”

Sharples emphasized, however, that the institutes’ funding burden would not be as bad as it looks. “If you were running an organization that dealt with hundreds of millions [of dollars] in research funds and someone said, ‘hey, I have to take 5 percent of your budget and do something else with it,’ you’d probably get upset. But this mechanism lets them choose how they want to participate … so it really isn’t as draconian as a lot of people will be afraid that it is,” Sharples said.

— KAM