NIH Roadmap for Medical Research Calls for Interdisciplinary Research

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Publication date: 
8 October 2003

The director of the National Institutes of Health has released the forward-looking "NIH Roadmap for Medical Research". Intended to guide medical research in the 21st century, the plan includes a strong interdisciplinary research component. The current and past NIH directors, Elias A. Zerhouni, and Harold Varmus, appeared at a Senate and House committees joint hearing last week, with a second appearance by Varmus at an afternoon briefing sponsored by the American Chemical Society. In conjunction with the release of the Roadmap, NIH issued a Request for Applications for exploratory centers for interdisciplinary research.

The NIH plan, ( ) was developed after a series of meetings and included the input of more than 300 individuals from academia, industry, government and the public. Written for the general public, the relatively brief plan is organized around three central themes: New Pathways to Discovery, Research Teams of the Future, and Re-engineering Clinical Research. Physical science research is included in both the discovery and research team sections.

"We have made remarkable progress in medical research in recent decades, and NIH-led research has changed the landscape of many diseases. However, very real - and very urgent - needs remain. NIH is now drawing all fields of science together in a concerted effort to meet these challenges head-on," said Zerhouni in describing his vision for the NIH and the medical research it supports. The director had an opportunity to expand upon his views at an October 2 joint hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. As an indicator of the great interest there is in NIH, this hearing was held in a very large Senate hearing room that had few empty seats.

NIH's budget doubled during the last five years, and the opening comments of Senate chairman Judd Gregg (R-NH) centered on how to determine if this money is being effectively used. Other comments from the senior members of the two committees concerned an administration proposal to outsource some NIH positions and the financial impact of biodefense programs on other research programs.

While most of this hearing centered on health related questions and how to best manage NIH's 27 institutes and centers, attention was also given to interdisciplinary research, with Zerhouni saying that disciplinary "silos" need to broken. Varmus did not raise this issue in his testimony at this hearing, but has been quite forthright in previous statements about the value of research in the physical sciences to medical advances, as he was later in the day. Also testifying was Harold Shapiro, chairman of the Committee on the Organizational Structure of NIH, whose remarks were largely devoted to management. Most of the Members' questions were dealt with medical research and NIH management. Chairman Gregg did ask Zerhouni if the peer review mechanism encouraged research silos; the director replied that this is a core question about future NIH management.

The importance of physical sciences research to medical advances was addressed directly during an afternoon briefing at which Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) offered opening remarks. Succinctly describing the current situation, Bingaman said that while there is a consensus on the value of life sciences research, with a resulting funding increase, "we have not had that same consensus on the physical sciences." There has been lip service, Bingaman continued, but it has not been matched by needed funding. Efforts to find a consensus continue, he said, adding that there will be "many opportunities to correct the deficiencies."

The briefing's moderator, Stephen Merrill, cited a National Research Council report that he was instrumental in producing (/fyi/2001/115.html ). Merrill is the Executive Director of the National Academies' Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy. One of the findings of the report, published in 2001, was that:

"Federal funding of [total] research in the physical sciences was $4.1 billion in 1999, compared with $4.9 billion in 1993 (measured in 1999 dollars). The bulk of the decline occurred in physics research. Federal funding was $2.2 billion, compared with $2.9 billion in 1993. Astronomy also had less funding in 1999 than in 1993 ($757.9 vs. $766.0 million), as did chemistry ($814.9 vs. $941.1 million)."

This decline in funding has been worrisome to both the National Academies and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (/fyi/2003/007.html), Merrill said. Funding reductions for the physical sciences have resulted in fewer graduate students and a leveling-off of publications, he added. Varmus spoke of a speech he gave five years ago to the American Physical Society describing the relationship between physical and life sciences. Describing the interdisciplinary component in the NIH roadmap, Varmus predicted that its success would depend upon the nation's mood, or willingness, to move ahead into new fields of research.

Also appearing at this briefing was Ray Orbach, Director of DOE's Office of Science. Orbach outlined the contributions that light sources and accelerators make in biology and medicine, how DOE research was fundamental in DNA sequencing, its work on an artificial retina, and the history of his office's partnership with NIH.

FYI #130 will excerpt pertinent sections of the NIH Roadmap for the Future, and will include information on the NIH's Request for Applications for exploratory centers for interdisciplinary research