Challenges and recommendations for the future director of the NIH

By Swagata Basu

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health is slated to step down from his role after 7 years. The absence of a Senate-confirmed NIH director, responsible for managing all NIH programs and activities and setting agency policies, could have serious policy implications for the research enterprise, especially at a time when Congress’ plans for biomedical research funding are unclear. A working group composed of scientists and two former NIH directors have recommended expediting the appointment of a “highly qualified person” given the vital role of biomedical research to the country.

The working group compiled their recommendations for the forthcoming director and the issues that need to be addressed to lead the enterprise effectively and efficiently. One of the pressing issues needing revision is the mechanism for reviewing grant applications. The authors suggest the review mechanism has become conservative and must be reformed to recognize and support unconventional hypotheses and methods, even if there is a risk of failure. Also, the authors recommend the NIH Center for Scientific Review focus its study sections on biological process and development of novel technologies that enable description of these process instead of targeting particular disorders or organs.

The authors also discuss issues regarding funding of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The group recommends funding all trainees with individual fellowships and training grants instead of research awards, which could have a positive effect on their career and research. While research awards are evaluated on significance of proposed research and potential impact of the project, evaluation of training awards should be all-inclusive, ensuring development of research and communication skills and training in ethical conduct of research. The authors recommend these grants be expanded to also include non-citizen trainees in order to sustain diversity in the biomedical workforce. The grants should also provide adequate training and mentoring in science communication and exposure to social, global and political issues.

Finally, the authors also propose fostering a culture that promotes fundamental discoveries, like the Human Genome Project, which will ultimately lead to development of new medicines and advancements in health of the nation. However, both federal and industry support for basic research has been stagnant and even declined over the past several years. So, it is imperative that substantial funds are allocated for basic research and collaboration between industry and academia is fostered which will ensure the continued preeminence of the U.S. in global science and technology.

Much of the state of the scientific infrastructure will depend on the future NIH director who will pave the way for growth and innovation in life sciences. By carefully analyzing these recommendations laid out by the working group, it might be possible to achieve these aims and ensure the agency remains committed to improving the health of the nation and maintaining its leadership in biomedical research.

swagata_headshotSwagata Basu is passionate about communicating scientific knowledge and making it accessible for all. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas and is currently a Science Communications Fellow at Inscopix, Inc. She can be reached via email ( or on Twitter (@swagatarc21).

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