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Vol. LIX, No. 24
November 30, 2007

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NIH’s New ‘Council of Councils’ Learns Mission at Planning Session

On the front page...

Although its title sounds august enough to be accompanied by the swelling thunder of tympanis, the new Council of Councils, which convened for the first time Nov. 8, has a mission more methodic than musical. Created by the NIH Reform Act of 2006, the council is an advisory body to the NIH director with oversight of Common Fund expenditures, which pay for broad, trans-NIH initiatives that need support no single institute or center could offer.

The daylong meeting was technically a planning session—not all of the council’s 30 members have completed the requisite paperwork for an official inaugural meeting, which will take place sometime in the spring. Nonetheless, the new members, representing the advisory councils of all 27 ICs plus three ad hoc representatives, got an overview of their mission from Dr. Alan Krensky, director of the Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives (OPASI).


“Our purpose is to hear what you have to say,” said Krensky, who offered a brief overview of the Reform Act to orient counselors to their task. He also described OPASI and its three subdivisions (all of which are currently recruiting directors) and the new Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives (DPCPSI, or as it is affectionately known, “D-Poughkeepsie”), which he called a bit less defined than OPASI at the moment. The division, to be organized by NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington, will encompass six OD program offices: Office of AIDS Research, Office of Research on Women’s Health; Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research; Office of Disease Prevention (including the Office of Medical Applications of Research); Office of Dietary Supplements; and Office of Rare Diseases.

By law, the Common Fund has been established at 1.7 percent of the total annual NIH appropriation, or somewhere around $500 million for the current year. It can go no lower than that, explained John Bartrum, director of NIH’s budget office, who attended the meeting as a guest, and also has a cap of no more than 5 percent of the NIH budget. NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni considers the fund an intellectual venture space whose projects will incubate for 5 to 10 years before either being dropped or ripening into fields fundable by other mechanisms.

Thus the C of C becomes an umbrella group advising the NIH director about which cross-cutting initiatives to support. Other input will be invited from the advisory committee to the NIH director, the IC directors, the directors of OD program offices, the NIH steering committee, the OPASI working group and key stakeholders.

Noting that NIH relies on some 31,000 outside advisors, Zerhouni told the council, “We couldn’t do our jobs without you…This is essentially a council of the whole of NIH, and I hope you will see it that way. This is an experiment in the making.”

Zerhouni offered the council an anecdote he hoped would be instructive. When he left Johns Hopkins in 2002 to become NIH director, he was already aware of future Nobel laureate Dr. Andrew Fire’s work on RNA interference, and was convinced that the field “needed to be pursued at 100 m.p.h. I could not redirect resources then, but I would be able to now, using the Common Fund.”

He challenged the council to pick projects the way the late NIH intramural Nobel laureate Dr. Julius Axelrod did—to assure that the experiments it chooses, whether they succeed or fail, yield answers to important questions.

The Common Fund, he explained, takes advantage of “an era of convergence” in fundamental scientific concepts (he cited cell signaling as a field underlying many diseases), the staggering complexity of modern science, and powerful new tools such as genomics and proteomics. “The opportunities have never been better,” he assured.

The planning session concluded with a discussion of initiatives on the horizon, including ways to keep the pipeline of new investigators full, and advances in the science of phenotyping. NIH Record Icon

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