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Researchers to NIH: “If It Ain’t Broke…”

Photonics.com
Feb 2011
Feb. 3, 2011 — Investigators in optical imaging and other biomedical fields are troubled by developments at the National Institutes of Health, where the creation of a new research center will lead to the dismantling of an older one, which many look upon as an essential source of funding.

The newer one, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, was announced as a response to the diminishing number of new drugs coming out of the pharmaceutical industry. The industry’s research productivity has been in decline over the past decade and a half, and isn’t likely to turn around soon. As a result, promising discoveries in the areas of depression and Parkinson’s disease, for example, aren’t being followed up.

With NCATS, the federal government hopes to advance research in these and other areas to the point where it attracts drug companies’ interest. The New York Times likens the center to “a home seller who spruces up properties to attract buyers in a down market.” A note on the NIH Feedback website phrases it slightly differently: “NCATS will seek ways to leverage science to bring new ideas and materials to the attention of industry by demonstrating their value.”

But even as plans for the center move forward – look for a line-item for NCATS in the 2012 budget the White House sends to Congress this month – NIH is planning to shutter the National Center for Research Resources, or NCRR. NCRR supports research enterprises across the institutes, providing shared instrumentation and high-end instrumentation grants, for example. More than 30,000 NIH-funded investigators rely on resources made possible by the center.

Initial reports suggested the closing was due to an existing law that limits the number of NIH institutes and centers, that NCRR had to go to make way for NCATS. But NIH director Frances Collins says the law wasn’t a factor, that the closing simply made sense. The Clinical and Translational Science Awards that comprise 40% of the NCRR budget will be moved to the new center and the remaining programs, he says, belong more appropriately elsewhere.

But where? The agency has posted on its website a straw model in which shared instrumentation and high-end instrumentation grants would be moved to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), for example, and imaging P41s moved to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). Some number of programs will be placed in an interim infrastructure unit until the agency can determine where best to relocate them.

Researchers aren’t entirely convinced this is a good idea. In the first month after the launch of the feedback site investigators left more than 1100 comments, many of them urging NIH to consider the potential unintended consequences of dismantling the National Center for Research Resources.

“Moving the programs currently within NCRR would risk harming what has been a program that has achieved outstanding success and recognition,” one of the researchers wrote. “While in no way detracting from the other institutes who might ‘inherit’ these programs, many investigators fear that not having our historical ‘home’ that understands and has grown these programs for over a decade will be detrimental to the continued success of these programs.

“I am hopeful that the committee will understand the crucial need for the NCRR to continue to serve as the supportive home for the IDeA, RCMI, construction and shared equipment programs and will leave the talented NCRR program staff in place to continue and expand on our collaborative historical success.”


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