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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."


Dr. Elias Zerhouni
Before a Lipsett Amphitheater audience on Oct. 14, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni used the first anniversary of the Roadmap rollout to pause and take note of where the highway has led medicine so far, and where it will wend in the future. He admitted to some initial misgivings about how fast NIH could adopt a new approach to science that applies speed and intellectual leadership to a set of common barriers that no single institute could surmount alone.

"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.

NIGMS director Dr. Jeremy Berg said of the PubChem site, "You can kick the tires and see how it works."

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.

The panel that accompanied Zerhouni (r) at the first-year anniversary presentation included (from l) Dr. Robert Star of the Office of Science Policy, NINR director Dr. Patricia Grady and Berg.

"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."

NINR's Grady described the new research teams of the future, a main Roadmap component.

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., 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

Roadmap at a Glance

At the ripe age of 1, the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research is chiefly an extramural enterprise, affecting mainly the grantee/contract/academic research community. Though it's true that Roadmap work has consumed the work lives of hundreds of extramural program staff here at NIH (who were feted at a Wilson Hall reception following the Oct. 14 presentation, and got to hear the recently reconstituted rock band "The Directors" play a set, with NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni sitting in on keyboards), the only "intramural" effect of the Roadmap to date has been a doubling of the number of medical students training in clinical research at the Clinical Center, from 15 to 30.

The rock band The Directors only appears for NIH special events, and includes (from l) Larry Self, head of OEODM, NHGRI director Dr. Francis Collins, NIAMS director Dr. Stephen Katz, and NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni.

Dr. Dushanka Kleinman, who has been on loan to Bldg. 1 as Roadmap coordinator from her normal post as deputy director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, noted that the Roadmap has "9 working groups, multiple project groups, and teams of teams of teams." The Roadmap was funded at $129 million in FY 2004, $238 million in FY 05, and is expected to top out at around $507 million in FY 2009, Kleinman said. "The total expenditure is about $2.2 billion over 6 years, or a little under 1 percent of the total NIH budget over each of the years," she explained.

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