Guiding a 'Knowledge Enterprise'
By Rich McManus
Photos by Bill Branson
On the Front Page...
At the first of what he hopes becomes a regular occurrence, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni hosted a Town Hall Meeting on Oct. 4 before a packed Masur Auditorium crowd, reiterating his commitment to communicating openly with employees and pleading for input from the workforce: "I need to know where you are," he said. "The NIH can't evolve effectively unless the director is in touch with your concerns...This is as much my job as it is to advance research." He invited employees to write him at Director@nih.gov.
In opening remarks that preceded a dialogue with the audience, Zerhouni said he had visited 19 of NIH's 27 institutes and centers in his first 4 months on the job and been impressed by a widespread "commitment to excellence" here. "People think of us as an outstanding federal agency," he observed. "You play a critical role. My job is to enhance that, and make sure there are no obstacles to your achievement."
Zerhouni said, "I really think that the life sciences are a top national priority for the first half of the 21st century...It's an area where we know the least, and it is still the number one scientific challenge for mankind.
"We do not exist in a stable relationship with our environment," he continued. "There are emerging and reemerging diseases...We need to establish our research priorities in order to accelerate our efforts. We've been generously supported, and now the challenge is what to do with it."
During a series of "roadmap" meetings this past summer, Zerhouni collected the concerns of both the extramural and intramural communities regarding NIH's future, and boiled down a central concern of all: "Are there areas of science that can't be taken on by any one institute, but are nonetheless NIH's overall responsibility?" He also mused about the scientific team of the future, which will certainly be multidisciplinary. "Is the NIH focused on that?" he asked.
The process of defining a vision will continue, he said. He never wants to be without a forceful answer to the question, "What did you do with the budget?"
Prior to the meeting, the director's staff opened a web site where employees could submit questions and identify issues for the director to address; the site garnered some 401 queries, falling into four broad themes: the director's vision for NIH, personnel, quality of life and security. Of the latter topic, Zerhouni laid bare his feelings about a fence: "I love the campus and the open atmosphere, and I came here with a bias against the fence," he said. But after briefings by experts and a careful review, he concluded "it is very hard to ensure that this national asset can be protected effectively without a fence." He wants it to be as unobtrusive as possible, and to reflect the concerns of both external and internal communities. And because, only a day earlier, a sniper had gone on a rampage in Montgomery County, Zerhouni felt even more obliged to err on the side of more security: "Not having security yesterday..." he began gravely, "it might have been a very different story, I can assure you."
Updating the audience on the fence, construction of which is slated to start in November and end sometime late next year, was Stella Serras-Fiotes of ORS. Once built, the fence will allow freer access inside campus, she said, although some facilities will still require added security. "All current vehicle entrances will remain, both for cars and pedestrians," she noted, and another six gates will be built in areas that currently see abundant foot traffic. ORS, she added, is currently developing an evacuation plan to be uninhibited by the new fence in case employees are sent home during an emergency such as 9/11.
She finished her presentation by listing four assets of a fence: it better defines the campus perimeter, provides focused entrances, does little harm to collegiality (NIH will simply resemble many universities, she said), and protects a national asset.
To which the first questioner disagreed, at length. Zerhouni listened to some familiar objections, then said, "We do not want NIH to be taken by surprise in any way. Yesterday (the first day of the sniper's attacks) people said to me that they were thankful that we have the gates." He said NIH must achieve a balance of competing interests, and conceded that the fence is "a no-win situation. We can't please all of the needs of all of the constituencies...This is a very visible agency. We are known worldwide. What could be better for front-page impact than to have something happen here?"
Asked about an alleged slowness to develop stem cells, Zerhouni argued that stem cell research is still in a very early stage, and that it is too early to say whether adult stem cells are less valuable than those harvested from human embryos. "It would be presumptuous to guess where therapeutic advances will be made," he said. "We need to walk before we run. We need to pursue the field, and invest in it because disease knows no politics. I believe that we at NIH must be factual, not factional."
Another attendee asked about OMB Circular A-76, a Bush administration effort now more than a year old to identify federal positions that could be outsourced at a savings to the government. Chick Leasure, NIH deputy director for management, explained that only a limited number of NIH jobs are targeted for cost comparison (the outsourcing must save the government a minimum of 10 percent, he said), but assured the audience that no one will lose their job. "We believe we will be able to offer early-outs (to those potentially affected by outsourcing), but there is no indication of buyouts," he said. He returned to the topic later, adding that of roughly 18,000 workers here, only about 8,000 work in jobs that could be outsourced, but that only a tiny subset of positions (not people) are under review: 460 in 2002 and 930 in 2003. Leasure asked interested parties to consult the A-76 portion of the Office of Management Assessment web site (http://oma.od.nih.gov/) for more information.
Questions arose about health and safety on campus, specifically the plan to erect Bldg. B for infectious diseases work. Meeting moderator Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research, said no BSL-4 (highest level of protection required) work is done at NIH, despite a capacity for it in Bldg. 41. The proposed Bldg. B will have some BSL-3 areas, he said, as do some other campus facilities. He then tapped NIAID scientific director Dr. Thomas Kindt for comment. "Let me dispel confusion," Kindt said. "We will not accumulate large amounts of any agent. We are just going to expand programs we've been doing for years. We are not doing any biowarfare work here, just work on countering such an attack."
The scarcity-of-parking issue came up, and Zerhouni assured all that there is no one in the upper reaches of American academia who is not intimately familiar with the problem. "This is no different than what I am used to," he quipped. "We had the same thing at Hopkins been there, done that."
The latest twist in that field is that ORS has been compelled to reissue contractor permits owing to abuse of the system. "We're just trying to fix the problem," assured Steve Ficca, NIH associate director for research services. "The idea is to be fair to all who have a right to park on campus."
Late in the hour-long session, someone asked about Zerhouni's management philosophy, and the director was typically forthcoming: "I don't have any gelled philosophy," he began, "but let me share with you some of my biases. I believe in shared governance, fair policies, and I try to avoid micromanaging. I'd rather leave it to the front line to do that. To my mind, the unique character of NIH is that it is a knowledge enterprise, not just a huge manager of grants...This is a government institution, but it is like academia. It has structures that are different than a corporation or a university. I'm starting to learn that there needs to be a balance between centralization and decentralization.
"Because we've grown so much," he continued, "we need to learn how to coordinate efforts. But I don't want us to lose our innovation, our autonomy or our spirit those are the virtues of decentralization. I don't know how [my vision] will be implemented in detail, but that's my philosophy." To which the audience responded with sustained applause that sounded like assent.
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