NIH Director Collins moves forward with NIAAA/NIDA merger

Nov 18 2010 Published by under Alcohol, Drug Abuse Science, NIH

Looks as though the NIH Director has accepted the recommendation of the Scientific Management Review Board (videocast; jump to minute 192 or so) and will move forward on integrating the current National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism into a new National Institute on "substance use, abuse, and addiction research and related public health initiatives".

At least one person communicating with me about this today has intimated that Collins is in favor of the merger and that this is a done deal. However, a memo that I've received, which purports to be one Collins sent to the NIDA staff, doesn't actually say this. It says, rather, that he wants a more-detailed plan put on his desk for final consideration.

I recognize that such a major organizational change will require a great deal of analysis, coordination, and effort. I also appreciate that this proposal has prompted many questions and concerns among staff and outside stakeholders. We will make certain that this process is carried out thoughtfully, with careful consideration of not only the science, but also of the staff in NIDA and NIAAA, and others at NIH who may be affected by these changes. Consequently, I have asked NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., and National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Director Stephen I. Katz, M.D., Ph.D., to pull together a task force of experts from within NIH to look carefully across all of NIH’s 27 Institutes and Centers to determine where substance use, abuse, and addiction research programs currently exist and make recommendations about what programs should be moved into the proposed new Institute. An important component of this effort will be to take a careful look at the intramural programs of NIDA and NIAAA, and consider how best to build on the excellent science represented there. In addition, the task force will survey NIDA and NIAAA for programs that are not related to substance use, abuse, and addiction research and make recommendations about where such programs will go. The task force will also include expertise on organizational change. Final recommendations to the NIH Director will be informed by consultation with relevant internal and external stakeholders...I anticipate that the task force will produce a detailed reorganization plan for my consideration sometime in the summer of 2011.

Director Collins also made the awkward attempt to keep people from panicking.

In the interim, all existing substance use, abuse, and addiction research programs at NIH will continue status quo. It is imperative we keep these important lines of research moving forward with all due speed for the benefit of the nation’s health.

Nice try, anyway.

Now admittedly, I am one that does not understand the panicked reaction which is coming for the most part from the NIAAA direction. Both extramural grant holders and NIAAA program staff have been strikingly more nervous about merger than have people on the NIDA side. I do not understand this. If, as the occasional commenter around here asserts, the therapeutic efforts of NIAAA have put those of NIDA to shame over the past two-three decades then it is the NIDA folks that should be nervous, if you ask me. Also, the constituency on the alcohol side is one hell of a lot less twitchy-less morality nonsense involved, more broad spread acceptance of dependence and abuse as a reality (compared with cannabis, say) and one heck of a lot bigger affected population. Then there is the perception factor (and perhaps that is what all the whining is about) that NIAAA will be the aggrieved party in this merger- it strikes me that this would help to preserve NIAAA jobs / research portfolio over that of NIDA as well.

I am interested in the idea that this merger will be an opportunity to enforce scientific orthodoxy..at least at the start. The task force will be looking to strip anything that smells of substance dependence out of other Institutes and strip anything that is too distant from substance abuse out of NIAAA's and NIDA's existing portfolios. So at least from the launch of the new substance abuse Institute (whatever it is to be named) there may be a rather unique demarcation of territory. Of course this will evolve over time to the kind of occasional overlap we see at present...unless additional IC mergers are accomplished with similar enforcement of strict topic boundaries.

This is more of a curiosity than anything. I don't see any particular landmines ahead, but then I suppose I'm not one who does work in an uncertain grey area of overlap between the current NIDA/NIAAA portfolios and those of another IC.

Now, let us turn to our favorite interest, that of what specific moves we individuals in the extramural research community should be making to maximize the chances of keeping our labs funded. This is mere speculation at this point since everything is still very hazy and out of focus.

I would say first, if you are an alcohol-only researcher this is a good time to start thinking about broadening your appeal. Start looking for Divisions and Branches at NIDA and elsewhere that might be interested in your research. Take a look at the things of interest to you that lean toward the general substance abuse side of the equation and poke through RePORTER to find out if anyone else is funded on the most obviously related topics.

Second, if you are a NIDA-only person, take a look at alcohol, even if you don't plan to do any specific studies. Whut? Well sure, NIDA is bigger than NIAAA but many of the NIAAA program officers are going to end up in the integrated institute. If you are talking with them down the line and you evince complete ignorance of alcohol research and ignorance of the overlaps vs dissimilarities with your own favorite drug of abuse..well, this will not endear you to them.

Third, training moves. If you are a PI, consider recruiting a postdoc from the other side of the fence in the next year or two. This will give you some expertise and "voice" when you start writing new grants in a couple of years. Similarly if you are a postdoc in a NIDA-focused or NIAAA-focused laboratory, this may be a good time to give the other side some serious consideration for you next training stop.

Fourth, departmental breadth. There are some departments or SuperResearchGroups that perhaps are a little too exclusive to alcohol or not-alcohol at present. This is a great time to get some breadth with your next Assistant Professor hire, is it not?

UPDATE 11/19/10: See additional links in the comments, Collins has a public press release that seems about the same. One thing that I forgot to take up is the fact that this fact-finding process is critical for determining the size of the budget of the new Institute. There is no reason to think it will simply be an addition of NIDA's and NIAAA's current slices of the NIH pie. The addiction-related research focused on nicotine/tobacco that is currently in the NCI might represent a considerable portfolio.
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as always, see Disclaimer. I'm an interested party in this process.

8 responses so far

  • anon says:

    I don't know anything about this process, but I think you're missing one concern this memo might be trying to address (among others that you do note). It has a focus on intramural issues. The NIDA intramural program is primarily in Baltimore. I think the NIAAA intramural program is in Bethesda, closer to the rest of the NIH. Some of the structural changes and oversight issues might simply be trying to puzzle out the complex logistical and management issues for such a physically separated program. I'm not sure this is relevant to extramural, but seeing what fits or gets bumped from a merged intramural program, might parallel what they're hoping for regarding an extramural portfolio (total speculation).

    On to a more important question, will this mean the end of annual NIDA magnets at SFN or will the new institute continue this practice? Will the psychedelic neuron character who graces these magnets survive to see another conference? (Sorry, couldn't find an online image for the non-SFNers here)

  • drugmonkey says:

    Coverage from the Science news directorate

    http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2010/11/nih-director-favors-merging-addi.html

    It notes that even if Collins goes forward, it still has to be reviewed by the head of HHS and then Congress would have 180 days to block it. I still think we aren't going to hear seriously from the beverage industry until it gets to Congress. And by "hear" I mean by deducing what they want from what pet Congress Critters have to say about it.

    Also, this news bit reminds that the juiciest target for acquiring more portfolio is all of the nicotine stuff that is funded by the NCI at present.

    __

    Collins' statement for public consumption seems about the same as what he sent to NIDA staff.

    http://www.nih.gov/news/health/nov2010/od-18.htm

  • pinus says:

    How much nicotine related work does NCI have?

  • pinus says:

    scratch that last comment. I just popped over the reporter...lots of nicotine grants at NCI

    One that drew my eye was a large P50...this most definitely would fall under the purview of an addiction institute...no?:

    THE COLLABORATIVE GENETIC STUDY OF NICOTINE DEPENDENCE

  • pinus says:

    There was 56 million worth of NCI grants with 'nicotine' as a key word last year. For reference, wasn't the NIAAA's total budget around 470 million?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Nice sleuthing. Wonder if NCI gives a crap?

  • pinus says:

    NCI's total budget is over 1 Billion....so who knows what they think. Varmus was on the committee that suggested a merger...and felt very strongly about going through with it. I wonder if he will sing a different tune when his institute is losing $$$.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Politically he has to act overjoyed to shed the addiction portfolio, doesn't he? Who knows, maybe he won't even be sad. NCI is freaking HUGE.

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