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Vol. LXI, No. 13
June 26, 2009

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NIHs Summer Workload High, ACD Learns

On the front page...

Because great gifts create high expectations, NIH’s workforce can anticipate a vacation-free summer as the agency deals with a one-time $10.4 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) appropriation that must be disbursed within 2 years.

“The NIH staff has been unbelievable in responding to the challenge of ARRA funds,” NIH acting director Dr. Raynard Kington told the 98th gathering of the advisory committee to the NIH director (ACD) on June 4. “It takes work to do it responsibly, and I salute the incredible creativity, hard work and commitment of our people. We will look back in pride one day at this great test,” he predicted, then quipped, “No one will be taking summer vacations this year at NIH.”


  NIH acting director Dr. Raynard Kington (l) presides over ACD meeting on June 4.  
  NIH acting director Dr. Raynard Kington (l) presides over ACD meeting on June 4.  

In a normal summer, the Center for Scientific Review receives around 16,000 grant applications. The June 2009 cycle [one of three that occur each year] will attract some 35,000 applications, said CSR director Dr. Toni Scarpa. NIH will nearly quadruple the number of reviewers it employs this summer, going from 8,000 to 30,000, which includes scientists all over the world.

Kington noted that more than 21,000 applications had arrived for Challenge grants alone. “That number reflects the pent-up demand of good scientific ideas,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary sign of how much opportunity is out there.” He predicted that the $200 million Challenge grant program would likely double in size. He also said that NIH’s recent efforts to streamline and improve the peer review process have left the agency “well-suited to scaling up [to receive more applications]. We have a strong infrastructure in place.”

In addition to the ARRA challenge, NIH must also, by July 7, digest some 49,015 comments on its draft stem cell guidelines and issue a new set that reflects the input, noted Dr. Lana Skirboll, acting director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives.

NIH will nearly quadruple the number of reviewers it employs this summer, going from 8,000 to 30,000...More than 21,000 applications have arrived for Challenge grants alone.

July 7 is also the deadline for comments on a new set of proposed guidelines dealing with conflict of interest in the extramural community. The current guidelines were created by HHS in 1995 and NIH is “assessing whether changes are needed,” Kington said, in light of recent news stories about, and congressional inquiry into, unreported income earned by grantees from drug and medical device companies.

The ACD also got an update from the blue ribbon panel advising NIH on the risk assessment of the Boston University National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL). Two court cases, one federal and one state, are both examining the adequacy of NIH’s risk assessment. The outcome of the cases will determine whether the facility will ever host work at biosafety levels 3 or 4 [for the most dangerous pathogens].

Meanwhile, the structure is already built, said Dr. Amy Patterson, acting director of NIH’s Office of Science Policy, and is awaiting local permits to conduct the planned work.

“Right now [NEIDL] is being used as a training facility for public health response,” she said, “just basic city responses to emergencies. No infectious agents are being studied there.”

At the suggestion of the blue ribbon panel, NIH, assisted by the National Research Council, is conducting a supplementary risk assessment. A draft of that assessment is expected to be released for public comment early next year. The panel also drafted a set of “best practices for community engagement” for any future high- and maximum-containment infectious disease research, which were unanimously adopted by the ACD.

As the meeting ended, Kington lightheartedly noted, “I am cautiously optimistic that a permanent NIH director will lead the December [ACD] meeting.” NIHRecord Icon

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