“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
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.