What if NIH could peer into a crystal ball and effectively
attack the next global health woe 10 or 15 years in advance? How
much of a health dividend could the nation collect later if the
agency could invest now in some clever — but hard-to-fit-into-any-IC — research
project? In the wake of Roadmap success, NIH will attempt to answer
such questions as it launches the Office of Portfolio Analysis
and Strategic Initiatives (OPASI), which will transform the way
NIH finds and funds cutting-edge research.
"One of the most difficult things to do is to usher in change," said
NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni on Dec. 2, addressing the 91st
meeting of the advisory committee to the director (ACD). "This
process has essentially two goals: To allow new science that falls
through the cracks to be funded quickly and to make sure new ideas
have a chance. This to me is more of a venture capital fund than
anything else. We do not want to duplicate what is already being
done. We want to allow more flexibility and nimbleness. We want
to provide dialogue about cross-cutting science areas. OPASI will
provide a cone of exploration, which becomes more important in
times of limited funds."
The new office will identify scientific investment opportunities
based on proposals from individual scientists, stakeholders and
outside NIH, a Roadmap-like pool of funding applications, data about
the burden of illness as well as considerable input from IC directors
and such Office of the Director components as women's health, behavioral
science and AIDS research. Projects that pass muster with a Council
of Councils (representatives from all IC advisory boards) will then
be funded for an initial 5-year term, with annual review. After 5
years, progress on the initiative will be evaluated; if necessary,
the project can be granted another 5 years of funding. No initiative
will be funded for more than 10 years.
|"This to me is more of a venture capital fund than anything
else...We want to allow more flexibility and nimbleness. We
want to provide dialogue about cross-cutting science areas."
"I want to make it clear that we are not creating a 28th institute," Zerhouni
stressed. "OPASI will have minimum infrastructure. It will be managed
primarily by the institutes and centers and the initiatives it
funds will be short-term. We're not creating entitlements."
OPASI will have three branches: the Division of Resource Development
and Analysis, the Division of Strategic Coordination and the Division
of Evaluation and Systematic Assessments. Besides mining for new
science, the office will help NIH classify its research into consistent
categories across all ICs, which will make it easier to provide
more precise information about its whole portfolio to Congress
and the public.
"Never before has NIH had a mechanism for scanning or analysis
of all of the applications we receive," pointed out NIH deputy
director Dr. Raynard Kington, who cochairs the OPASI working group
with NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes. OPASI's evaluation arm will
be responsible for such a tool.
Each IC will contribute a percentage of its budget to a "common
fund for shared needs" that will form OPASI's operating budget.
Current Roadmap funds will determine the baseline for the Common
Fund, which is 1.1 percent of NIH's total budget in fiscal year
2006. By FY 2008, the percentage is expected to grow to about 1.7.
"Fundamentally, the establishment of OPASI grew out of our success
with the NIH Roadmap — it really represents an effort to 'institutionalize' the
kinds of collaborations that the Roadmap made possible," Kington
explained. "We feel this office will fill a critical need. We should
be up and running within the next month."
OPASI has already been formally launched with an announcement
in the Sept. 28 Federal Register. In addition, some functions
and staff positions have already begun to be transferred to the
new office, mainly from the NIH Office of Science Policy.
The following are more detailed questions the NIH Record asked
about the new office and answers from the cochairs of the OPASI
In what ways, if any, do you think OPASI is long overdue
Clearly, the time is right for NIH to take a more coordinated approach
to the development and funding of trans-agency initiatives. This
is true not only because many of the most exciting scientific opportunities
and pressing public health challenges we are facing now cut across
the mission areas of multiple institutes and centers, but also
because the tightening of the NIH budget requires that we be as
strategic as possible in catalyzing high-impact research.
What are the next steps in establishing OPASI?
We are getting ready to appoint an interim OPASI director to lead
the new office while we conduct a national search for a permanent
director. We are also in the process of putting together a governance
body to help oversee OPASI's activities — this will be
a new working group of the NIH steering committee, cochaired
by the OPASI director and an IC director.
How will OPASI improve transparency of the priority-setting
From the beginning, Dr. Zerhouni has been clear that the work of
OPASI must be as inclusive and transparent as possible. In thinking
through how the office will function, we have built in many opportunities
for key stakeholders — the scientific community (both internal
and external to NIH), patient advocacy groups, the lay public,
Congress and others — to help shape the work of OPASI.
For example, in canvassing for possible OPASI initiatives, we
will hold panel meetings with outside experts (as we did with the
Roadmap), to supplement the expertise we have here at NIH. When
it comes time to select initiatives for funding, we will seek input
from the ACD, which includes both scientific and lay representatives.
Also, the IC directors will have a prominent role in the OPASI
Obesity is often mentioned as a trans-NIH issue that
only recently began to be addressed that way. Is there another "next
big thing" on the horizon?
Obesity was mentioned because it is such a striking example of
an urgent public health need for which we were slow in developing
a coordinated, agency-wide strategic plan — although individual
institutes and centers were clearly supporting work on obesity.
Part of the problem was that this area cut across the missions
of multiple ICs.
In the future, we hope OPASI will provide the analytic resources
to identify more quickly important public health challenges such
as obesity, determine if the current efforts are effective and
facilitate the coordination of efforts of multiple ICs to address
If necessary, research areas that do not clearly fit within the
mission of any one institute or center will go through an open
and defined process to determine if they are appropriate for incubation
in OPASI and should be supported by use of the Common Fund. Once
established, OPASI would, in effect, be constantly scanning the
horizon to identify the "next big things."
Do you anticipate more of a shift toward disease-
specific research with OPASI, given the concerns of Congress
and the public?
We do not necessarily anticipate OPASI initiating a shift toward
disease-specific research — that will depend on the initiatives
that are proposed for OPASI consideration, and judgments of scientific
priority and opportunity. OPASI will support science that meets
the explicit criteria for consideration as an OPASI initiative — among
them, that it is truly transformative and that it involves many
institutes and centers, or that it represents research that "falls
between the cracks."
One proposed OPASI advantage is "the ability to weigh
scientific opportunity against public health urgency." In these
days of immediate health advocacy, it seems that there are
only "public health urgencies," and that the days of pursuing
20-year basic research projects based on intriguing scientific
opportunities are over. To what extent do you think basic research
is undervalued by people outside the scientific community?
How would OPASI help address this?
Our hope is that people outside of the research community are becoming
more aware of the critical importance of both basic and applied
biomedical and behavioral science in improving the quality of their
lives. At the same time, we know that any strategic scientific
investment process has its limitations. Although there are numerous
examples where targeted funding by NIH resulted in significant
advances being achieved more quickly than otherwise would have
occurred, there are also numerous examples where serendipity played
an important role in advancing science to address a particular
public health challenge.
Scientists who do basic research can never be sure where it will
lead, and there will always be the need for a substantial NIH investment
in investigator-initiated basic research that is simply about pursuing
an intriguing scientific opportunity.
OPASI will help complement those investments with strategic support
in areas that cut across the agency's missions and that are identified
with the advice of the broader scientific community.
In effect, OPASI will build on the Roadmap efforts to address
the roadblocks that are inhibiting progress on a number of scientific
fronts. For example, the Roadmap is supporting a concerted effort
to provide methodological breakthroughs that will allow scientists
to solve the 3-dimensional crystal structure of membrane proteins.
This sounds like incredibly basic research, and it is, and yet
a number of human diseases — including cystic fibrosis, diabetes
and Alzheimer's disease — are caused by changes or mutations
in membrane proteins, and a third of the human genome codes for
Clearly, this work will have broad implications in many fields
of biomedical research. We expect that OPASI will support initiatives
that will catalyze research being done in many scientific disciplines
and that relate to the missions of many institutes and centers.
Under what circumstances, if any, will OPASI change
the number/scope of existing ICs? Could OPASI recommend, for
instance, that some current ICs be combined or dissolved?
While the establishment of OPASI represents a major organizational
change at NIH — indeed, one that we hope will help stimulate
a cultural shift, as well — the mission of the office does
not encompass the authority to change the number of ICs at the
agency. As Dr. Zerhouni has stated publicly, we hope that OPASI
will achieve a "functional integration" in the sense that it will
bring together diverse components of the agency for a common scientific
purpose. With sufficient functional integration, we believe that
we can overcome the challenges in trans-NIH coordination that result
from the large size and structural complexity of the agency. Again,
the Roadmap has shown us how effective this can be.
What's the one concept you want employees to keep
in mind about OPASI?
In many respects, OPASI is about innovation and transformation — this
new entity will foster the funding of innovative science, at the
same time that it transforms how NIH collectively pursues cross-cutting
initiatives. Our hope is that the support OPASI gives will provide
an "incubator space" to accelerate critical research efforts that
address major, cross-cutting NIH priorities.