NIH Director Zerhouni Discusses Plans for New Agency ‘Roadmap’ at Joint Congressional Hearing
At a joint hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and House Energy and Commerce committees on Thursday, NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni discussed the "NIH Roadmap" plan he announced earlier this week, CongressDaily reports (Rovner, CongressDaily, 10/2). The $2 billion plan is intended to foster greater participation by the agency in medical research and more innovative approaches by members of the medical industry to develop new treatments. The roadmap, created in cooperation with more than 300 consultants from the health industry and academic sectors, designates three areas that the NIH would like to develop: new technologies to study molecules' networks in cells, bolstered training and cooperation among research teams in its 27 institutes and centers, and improved processes to study drugs in clinical trials. Zerhouni said the plan, which does not need congressional approval, would be funded by contributions made by separate NIH units from their existing budgets (California Healthline, 10/1). During the hearing, Zerhouni stressed the need to reform the agency's "silo" structure, under which each institute and center receives separate funding, saying that the current structure slows scientific advances. "Often, research done in one institute eventually finds its greatest application in the mission of another," he said. He added that with improved cooperation among the agency's institutes and centers and changes in research protocol, NIH could "more quickly translate discoveries into practice." However, Harold Varmus, a former NIH director who currently heads New York's Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said that more radical reforms should be implemented -- primarily, the fusion of the agency's 27 institutes and centers into five large units and an "NIH Central" that the director would oversee. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Billy Tauzin (R-La.) said that Congress, which has doubled NIH funding in the past five years, "may want to consider establishing a system of greater transparency of NIH research activities to guarantee that NIH is held accountable for taxpayer investments." Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) questioned the size of the NIH funding allocation Congress has proposed for fiscal year 2002, saying, "Even with the increases provided by the Senate, the number of new (research) grants would actually decrease by 75" (CongressDaily, 10/2).
Zerhouni's roadmap -- which would restructure clinical research, correct funding imbalances, reward "original thinkers" and "turn the [NIH's] lumbering bureaucracy into a nimble scientific mystery-busting force" -- should receive funding from Congress, but the plan also needs oversight to ensure it is not "overrun by pharmaceutical industry self-interest," a Los Angeles Times editorial states. Some critics say they are concerned that Zerhouni's "vague" promises to remove regulatory roadblocks "could be shorthand for dismantling regulations aimed at insulating government researchers from market and interest group pressures," the editorial says. The editorial surmises that Zerhouni "will almost certainly fall short of his lofty goal," adding that the funding he intends to spend "won't be enough to overturn deep-seated problems," including "imbalances" in funding preventive measures and treatments (Los Angeles Times, 10/3).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.