August 9, 2002

Institute of Medicine to study structure of NIH

Featured Image

Winners in the Department of Pathology's annual dessert contest, held last week, were Joyce Johnson and her pecan pie, left, third place, Scott Mitchell and his Cherry Yum Yum, second place and first place winner Gina Tucker and her Butterfinger cake. The desserts were judged by professionals from local hotels, and after the winners were announced, the department was able to taste all the entries. (photo by Dana Johnson)

A panel created by the Institute of Medicine is beginning a yearlong study of whether the structure of the National Institutes of Health has grown unwieldy, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week.

At their first meeting on July 30, members of the panel recommended that Congress should consider reorganizing the agency by grouping its proliferating institutes and centers into “clusters,” each devoted to a separate research topic. Acknowledging that political support for the NIH’s 27 existing institutes and centers may make it impossible to consolidate in this way, several speakers nonetheless maintained that streamlining the agency’s structure would reduce bureaucracy and increase opportunities for collaborative, interdisciplinary studies at the cutting edge of science.

Former director of the NIH, Harold E. Varmus, attended the meeting and spoke frankly of the frustrations he experienced in his attempts to manage the institutes and centers, each of which has its own budget and considerable managerial autonomy. Because Congress typically gives each of the institutes roughly comparable budget increases each year, Varmus said, it’s difficult for the NIH director to start bold and pricey scientific projects that cut across institute boundaries, such as in bioinformatics. That funding strategy also makes it harder to finance large, expensive scientific instruments for use by researchers straddling institutes.

Varmus, who left the NIH in 1999 to become president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, has proposed compressing the NIH’s existing structure into only six separate institutes. According to the Chronicle, the members of the Institute of Medicine committee seemed to largely accept Varmus’ case for streamlining, but also signaled that the panel would probably not go as far as he wants.