Zerhouni to Announce Sweeping Changes at the NIH

Apr 01 2008 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

The Director of the National Institutes of Health, Elias Zerhouni, has scheduled a press conference for later in the day and he is anticipated to announce broad ranging changes in the NIH. An official high up in the Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives would only speak off the record but listed a number of initiatives that are expected to be announced.


The NIH has been engaged in an effort for over a year to engage stakeholders in a dialog about the need for changes in the way the NIH does business. These efforts culminated in a series of pointed reports and advisories on peer reviews and grant funding which included the December 2007 Meeting of the Peer Review Advisory Committee and the issuance of the Draft Report of the Peer Review Self-Study. According to the OPASI official who was willing to speak without attribution, these efforts were only successful up to a point.
"Look, we tried our best to engage the stakeholders in this discussion. The NIH simply must change. The question is, how? What we found in meeting with academic societies, senior and highly respected investigators and our local institutional representatives is that there is a vast resistance to change. One might even say they are in denial."
When pressed for details the official listed several changes that are anticipated by the OPASI staff to be inevitable.

  • "The graying of science simply must be arrested. Now. Do you think it is a good investment to pile our research dollars on some 60 year old who has at best another ten years left? We're going to have to shift to a rational approach by investing in our younger faculty who may have 30 year careers ahead of them".
  • "The local institutes and universities are going to have to stop riding the NIH gravytrain. We're going to put powerful disincentives to create "soft money" jobs into play. They are going to have to come up with the salaries somehow or face significant losses in NIH support"
  • "We're not buying the big-lab-synergy schtick anymore. They had their chance over the past decade and we're not getting value for our dollars in our latest analyses. Expect significant changes to the amount of effort that can be squeezed out of one PI!"
  • "The Old Boys clubs will be a thing of the past. A new clustering analysis has allowed us to pinpoint the degree to which clubbish interest groups put a stranglehold on funding in their respective domains. It isn't pretty. We will start by mandating 33% of reviewers be at the Assistant Professor level and 10% emeritus faculty across all CSR and IC panels. Expect a few pilots studies to include promising pre-appointment scientists such as K99 awardees in review as well"

It appears that even more sweeping changes may be afoot. Another individual who wished to be identified only as "an official in the NIH" indicated that the long rumored contraction of ICs may lie in the immediate future. "This should have been obvious right at the outset. I mean, an institute for alcohol abuse and another one for drug abuse? Does this make sense to anyone? The overlap between the "brain institutes" NIMH, NIA, NINDS, and NICHD is simply unbelievable. A single National Institute on Disorders of the Brain is not out of the question".
When asked about the fate of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, our source simply laughed.
Credible sources also insist that the new effort to change the NIH drastically is not simply the usual over ambitious talking. Our sources (including three who would only serve for deep background) indicated that Congressional interest is supportive of Zerhouni. All sources mentioned Senator Arlen Specter as being obsessed with "fixing the [deleted] mess the NIH has become". In his role as ranking member on the appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, Senator Specter commands significant authority with respect to NIH operations. One of our sources indicated "Specter's willing to go to the mat this time. Congressional mandates, amendments to add or delete funding on a project by project basis...everything is on the table to move the NIH behemoth in a new direction. This is go time".
NIH Director Zerhouni has scheduled his press conference for 3pm Eastern at the Capitol and it is likely that relevant Congressional backers will be on hand to demonstrate support for the new initiatives.

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