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'You Can Kick the Tires'|
Roadmap Anniversary Marks Milestones
By Rich McManus
Photos by Ernie Branson
On the Front Page...
Just as President Eisenhower's interstate system of highways linked most major American cities in the 1950s and 1960s, NIH's year-old Roadmap for Medical Research initiative is laying pavement between some of the major "cities" in biology, including efforts in nanomedicine, molecular libraries, dramatically upgraded coordination of clinical research and a team approach to science that is more "we" than "me."
"I had some doubts initially," he said. "There was a lot of trepidation about the effort some predicted that we would be waiting 3 years for any results, but I am pleased to say that it happened a lot faster." NIH, along with an extensive cadre of outside consultants, responded to his plan with "enormous and amazing speed," he said.
Science in general is stalled by large gaps in knowledge about basic biological events, Zerhouni argued. "It's very important for science to have a stronger translational engine...I don't think we understand the language of the complexity of science." Rather than throw grants, new programs and RFAs (requests for application) piecemeal at aspects of biology's unexplored frontier, the Roadmap proposes a rational strategy to own up to what we don't know, stake out new territory to explore and assemble new research teams from disciplines that haven't traditionally been in cahoots.
Zerhouni said that purposeful exploration of what is currently unmapped territory "is the real driver of the Roadmap, and a source of a great deal of excitement in the extramural community it's really taken hold in many institutions...They are excited about the ability to work across disciplinary lines. They are grateful to talk to people they don't normally talk to.
"We are on the road," he declared, "and will continue to assess these novel concepts."
Zerhouni said NIH has been accused of slowness in responding to emerging opportunities in science, and is remedying that in test cases such as the nanotechnology initiative, which is encouraging consortia and interdisciplinary training in a promising new area of science. "[The extramural community] said, 'Please make it easier for us to collaborate,' and we did," Zerhouni reported.
The director said he is troubled by magazine articles claiming that much of what is innovative in science is now funded by departments other than NIH and the National Science Foundation. "I find that disturbing," he said. Countering such charges is a Roadmap component unveiled at the end of September the first NIH Director's Pioneer Awards, which went to nine outstanding extramural scientists. "The Roadmap encourages a culture of change, of shared resources, and of cooperation," Zerhouni emphasized.
He said the Roadmap effort consumes less than 1 percent of the NIH budget in any given year, and that NIH will "preserve its commitment to the individual investigator. We must be careful not to unbalance the portfolio...[the Roadmap] is not to be done at the expense of basic science.
"Think of [the Roadmap] as risk money," he counseled, "that's not bound up or already committed. It's a sort of venture capital," he continued, whereby NIH can "use the internal creativity of the agency to respond to the external creativity of the research community."
Zerhouni wants the Roadmap to "melt the silo effect" and "foster a creative community of science." He said Congress is on board with the plan, largely because it addresses all aspects of the research continuum from bench to bedside.
Zerhouni confessed that labels commonly affixed to the various stages of research bench, bedside, translational, late-translational miss the focus of NIH's intentions: "What we are talking about is either excellent science or not so excellent science I don't believe in dividing it up."
He said the extramural community has warmly welcomed the Roadmap: "Their response has been much more than we expected in every single Roadmap component...There is certainly a thirst for new tools and ideas to come forward."
Before turning over the dais to four scientists who gave the sort of detailed progress report that may be found at the Roadmap web site (www.nihroadmap. nih.gov), Zerhouni noted that 93 million people use the Internet regularly and that the web "is an important avenue to contact an increasingly sophisticated and skeptical public." Inasmuch as acceleration is a Roadmap watchword, the net is an important asset for the initiative's success and the home of a trove of information on its daily progress through the biological countryside.
To view the entire Oct. 14 presentation online, visit www.videocast.nih.gov.
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