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Steering Committee Provides Corporate Oversight, Efficiency
By Carla Garnett
Just as the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research is helping to prepare the scientific community for a new collaborative, interdisciplinary model for conducting research, NIH itself is ushering governance in a similar direction for handling the business side of the agency. Since last summer, the concept of "shared governance" in the form of a new NIH steering committee has undergirded most of the organization's decisions on such issues as streamlining the human resource corps, maintaining and building facilities and improving information technology topics common, and crucial, to all institutes and centers.
"The steering committee was created in an effort to make more transparent and efficient corporate-level decision-making," explains NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington, who as an ex officio committee member, along with NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni as chair, participates in the 10-member committee created to oversee all cross-agency non-scientific NIH functions. "The world has changed. There's a much greater need to coordinate our functions better across institutes and centers. This is a more appropriate model for modern times."
The idea of developing a new paradigm was suggested by Zerhouni at a December 2002 meeting of the IC directors. In response to a report from the internal group that develops funding plans for trans-NIH resources the NIH funding advisory review board (FARB) the director requested options that would "encourage shared, transparent governance and a crisper, more fluid strategic direction to corporate functions."
Citing the changing times and economic realities for NIH, Kington says, "there were three major reasons for developing the steering committee model several months ago the growing size and complexity of NIH, the need for better coordination of management functions, and the increasing prevalence of management issues that cut across institutes and centers."
Before the steering group was established, such governance issues often proved time-consuming and duplicative for IC directors as well as for many Office of the Director staff.
"Many new activities would require formation of ad hoc committees of IC directors," confides Kington. "The steering committee provides a solid framework for oversight of activities such as those funded centrally, operations in which all ICs have chipped in to provide funds."
Only so-called corporate functions, resources or policies are under the new group's purview, Kington stresses. Cross-cutting scientific and research issues will continue to be governed by the NIH director and individual IC directors.
Unlike the ad hoc approach of previous models, the composition of the steering committee follows a predetermined formula. The core group includes nine members, all IC directors, plus the NIH director and the deputy director as an ex officio member; the three largest institutes NCI, NIAID, and NHLBI, in terms of budget have their directors as permanent representatives on the committee, and the 6 remaining slots rotate among IC directors in staggered, 3-year terms with 3 IC directors from mid-sized ICs and 3 from smaller ICs. Expert advice and support for the committee are provided by the various NIH associate and deputy directors and other senior OD staff.
One of two options proposed by a sub-group of IC directors charged with exploring alternative governance structures, the steering committee maintains five permanent working groups to handle management and budget, information technology, intramural activities, extramural activities, and facilities.
"One of the best examples of the advantages of the steering committee is how it helped the agency develop and implement a plan to determine FTE [full-time equivalency] allocations at a time when FTEs are much more tightly controlled than in previous years," Kington says. "The new model is working well, and is proving itself as an effective tool for governance during challenging times."
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