- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Biomedical research is greatly in need of a bully pulpit, and the new National Institutes of Health director intends to fill it.

But when speaking to reporters Monday in Bethesda on the first day of his new job, Dr. Francis Collins declined to name, in order, any specific measures he intended to take. He said that he has a list of “things I’d like to accomplish in the first six months,” but didn’t want to be held to account on any of them lest he fail.

Chief among them, he made clear, is the need for NIH “to be more proactive and actively engineer an outreach program — not to overhype but as part of our education role.”

This will mean “a more effective communications strategy” to inform the public about the many benefits that stem from clinical research — the meat and potatoes of an agency that, on its current 2009 budget of $30.6 billion, supports 325,000 research personnel at more than 3,100 institutions here and abroad.

To use that bully pulpit, Dr. Collins’ wife, genetics counselor Diane Baker, may be out on the road spreading the word, he said. He also said he would “encourage grantees to invite members [of Congress] to see what is happening” in their areas of expertise.

Dr. Collins also said he would re-evaluate bureaucratic handicaps that slow the process of engaging human subjects in clinical trials.

But he also wants to put his agency in the middle of the national conversation regarding health care reform “by providing evidence to assist decision makers in the direction we should go in putting science to work.”

Already, he said, “NIH has been doing research in assessing the quality of intervention.” Furthermore, he said, a case can be made that “medical research is a way of identifying pathways for health care that are not so expensive.”

One of his major concerns, he acknowledged, has to do with what happens after the many extra billions in research money handed to NIH in stimulus funding have been spent — wishing to avoid the possibility that projects will be stranded when those sums expire in the next year.

“Young scientists just starting their careers are in a fragile state,” he said in response to a question about difficulties of obtaining grant money for research at an early age.

Showing that he is well acquainted already with the workings of an agency where he previously spent some 16 years of his life, the physician-geneticist who headed up human genome analysis noted that only a “couple of thousand” applications were expected for some “three to four hundred” challenge grants. Instead, 20,000 already have been reviewed.

Without future funding sources, he said he saw “the potential of falling off a cliff” unless a public case is made for NIH spending in terms of the value of the results in dollar amount, an investment yield that he characterized as “two for every one.”

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