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Vol. LXIII, No. 7
April 1, 2011

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Ready to Stand Up Oct. 1
Collins Gives Update on NCATS at Town Hall Meeting

On the front page...

Dr. Francis Collins

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins addresses employee morale, NCATS at town hall meeting.

NIH’s proposed new addition—the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, or NCATS—is on schedule for its Oct. 1 delivery date, said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins at a Mar. 14 town hall meeting in Masur Auditorium. The 63-minute session provided a chance for him to update employees on NCATS progress and answer their questions.

Collins first acknowledged that the meeting was occurring during a time when global attention was fixed on a natural disaster. An earthquake-followed- by-tsunami devastated northeastern Japan on Mar. 11 and threatened a much larger region past Japanese borders.

“All of us are watching with great alarm and concern,” Collins said about events unfolding in the Pacific. He said he and other staff are waiting to learn how NIH might help the situation.


Message on Morale

Collins then addressed employee morale and the sense of unease some may be feeling. In the U.S., uncertainty has been focused for months on whether a federal budget for fiscal year 2011 can be finalized, thereby averting a potential government shutdown.

“Certainly at NIH this has not been a particularly easy time,” he continued. “I don’t have to tell any of you about the instabilities that are causing us anxiety as we once again are facing a circumstance whereby at the end of this week we’re not quite sure whether the government will be open or closed…Obviously the debate on the budget for NIH is taking a toll on many people.”
“It would be—especially at this time—good for NIH to look for ways that we can optimize this process, working in partnership with pharma and biotech.”

Collins also touched on the difficulties of living with the federal pay freeze.

“Maybe it’s particularly hard because of the messages that are coming from certain places that public sector employees are not as valued as they should be,” he said. “The politics that are going on right now can at times be pretty unpleasant. It is unfortunate indeed that dedicated people such as those who work here at NIH are being characterized as bureaucrats or people who are not that interested in working hard. I know better…We will get through this.”

Timing Is Everything

Collins updates employees on the newest addition proposed for NIH, NCATS.

Photos: Ernie Branson

In that context, Collins proceeded to lay out the case for launching NCATS now. Scientific opportunities have never been more plentiful and primed for investigation, he said, and more important, the public has never been more ready and in need of medical breakthroughs. Some people have voiced doubts about the wisdom of NIH starting a project of such magnitude during the current climate of uncertainty. Collins addressed doubters directly.

“If we at NIH are dedicated to serve the public by advancing opportunities to prevent and treat disease, and we see an opening to do that even better, then ‘It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing,’” he said, quoting his predecessor, former NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni.

“[Of course establishing NCATS] will require us to do in tight times things that we wish we could do more generously and flexibly,” he warned, but the opportunity is too extraordinary to pass up, the potential impact on public health too great to ignore.

Building a Bridge

Collins then presented “Catalyzing Innovation,” a slide show outlining the goals and strategy for creating NCATS and how that strategy aligns with U.S. investment priorities for the future.

At one point, he showed a graphic of two shorelines. The left coast represented “Fundamental Knowledge.” The right was “Application of Fundamental Knowledge.” The beaches were separated by a large body of water. Collins said NIH is developing NCATS to bridge that span, to get information from one side to the other.

To put it in practical terms, Collins showed a rainbow-striped diagram illustrating the long, complex steps a potential new drug must travel from researcher’s lab to patient’s bedside.

“It would be—especially at this time—good for NIH to look for ways that we can optimize this process, working in partnership with pharma and biotech,” he said.

The ultimate goal of NCATS is to make the journey shorter and faster. By studying the process in a scientific way, he suggested, NCATS will be a bridge-builder between new therapies and the patients waiting on them.

Busting the Myths

Since the new center was announced several months ago, several concerns have been raised about the concept of NCATS. At the town hall, Collins was careful to address three of the main worries he’s heard.

  • The new center will “facilitate—not duplicate”— translational research efforts already under way at other NIH components.
  • NCATS is meant to “complement—not compete with”—private sector drug and therapy development.
  • The center will “reinforce—not reduce”—NIH’s commitment to basic research.
  • “NCATS will have its success by catalyzing collaborations across NIH,” he stressed.

    Collins also took time to acknowledge the fears and anxieties felt by employees, particularly those who work at the National Center for Research Resources, which is being dismantled to create NCATS.

    “I know this can be disruptive,” he concluded, noting that the scientific community has always embraced change when the opportunity arises. “I know there are real people involved in these programs. They are not just boxes on a chart…I firmly believe that what we end up with this fall is going to be a very exciting new kind of NIH organizational structure.”

    Collins ended the meeting by reminding the audience to visit NIH is using the web site to address questions and collect input on NCATS and other topics.

    NIH’ers can view the entire town hall session, which is archived under Past Events at Icon

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