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Vol. LXVI, No. 1
January 3, 2014

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Budget Uncertainty Again Clouds ACD Meeting

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The 107th meeting of the advisory committee to the NIH director (ACD) Dec. 5-6 was much like the last half-dozen of these biannual events: brimming with scientific promise—especially regarding the BRAIN Initiative at NIH—but darkened by prospects of flat or reduced budgets.

At the outset of his state-of-the-NIH presentation to the group, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins described new guitar pick-shaped lapel pins (created by an outside group, United for Medical Research) popping up around NIH and even on Capitol Hill that tout “Hope at NIH.” These arose not only out of Collins’ reputation as a musician, but also as “insignia that we believe in what we are doing,” said Collins.

“You want to pick NIH and you want to pick hope,” he said, inviting the group to wear the symbols with pride.

Collins called 2013 “the worst year in recorded history in terms of NIH’s ability to support grant applications.” The success rate was between 1 in 6 or 7, or about 15 percent, which he called “unsustainable—there’s nothing helpful about that…I can’t tell the difference between the 14th and 17th percentile, so it’s got to be incredibly demoralizing” to the scientific community, he said.


He lamented the need “to tell 14,000 scientists to go home, and you may not use your email” at the outset of the 16-day government shutdown last October. As he walked through his own lab in Bldg. 50 after the furlough and found it dark, he said, “It was enough to make you cry.”

But he was heartened by the workforce’s enthusiastic return to NIH: “People came back totally fired up. The attitude is, ‘You’re not going to knock us down for long,’ and that has been sustained since Oct. 16.”

Collins warned at the time that NIH faced another 2 percent cut in mid-January, or about $600 million, on top of the $1.55 billion cut made last March, if sequestration continued to be the law of the land.

On a brighter note, Dr. Cori Bargmann, co-chair of the ACD BRAIN working group, reported that the “response to the BRAIN Initiative scientific program [outlined last September] has been quite positive” and now enjoys broad scientific credibility. Her group is scheduled to deliver its final report to the ACD in June 2014, including goals, critical technologies, mechanisms, timelines and milestones.

“The field is in a rapidly moving, rapidly growing phase,” said Bargmann, who cautioned against an overemphasis on specific technologies or timeframes.

Princeton University president Dr. Shirley Tilghman, participating in her final ACD meeting, said the BRAIN Initiative “parallels the Human Genome Project in many ways…a former genome project critic is someone who just got a hit in a genome database.” She expects the initiative to have a “profound effect across the field…many concerns will vanish with time.”

Tilghman also seconded Bargmann’s warning about misplaced goals: “This is not an engineering project.” To focus on the means and not the end, she said, “would exert a crushingly negative effect on the creativity you are hoping to unleash.”

Bargmann emphasized the anticipated benefits of the initiative to all of neuroscience: “This is not ‘We had to kill neuroscience in order to save it,’” she argued. That acknowledged the kind of criticism summed up by a comment Bargmann heard made, facetiously, by Dr. Steven Hyman, former NIMH director who is president-elect of the Society for Neuroscience: “They’re coming for my R01 and I’m getting a gun.”

Bargmann also pointed out that the BRAIN Initiative at NIH “is a small program.” Out of NIH’s annual expenditure of $5.5 billion in neuroscience, the $40 million committed to the initiative in FY 2014 is less than 1 percent of the total, she explained. “Some perspective is needed; we are in an early, exploratory phase.”

In her explanation of how the BRAIN Initiative at NIH is being funded, NIH deputy director for science, policy and outreach Dr. Kathy Hudson acknowledged, “It’s an interesting and challenging circumstance to be describing funding decisions before the working group has issued its final report.” She described current funding sources, implementation and governance steps and predicted that FY 2014 Requests for Applications would go out before Christmas. “Turning goals into RFAs will be a challenge,” she said.

Dr. Clyde Yancy of Northwestern University, also advising the ACD for the last time, warned that NIH should, early in the game, garner the support of patient groups and the public about the promise of the BRAIN Initiative. He predicts politicization of the project “given its origin [President Obama].”

Concluded Collins, “We need to ramp up from what has really been kind of a modest beginning…I hope we travel a fairly steep ramp.” He said the first year of the Human Genome Project was quite similar. “It will take some doing to convince decision-makers” to endorse robust BRAIN Initiative funding, he said.

The full ACD meeting, which was open to the public, can be viewed at (day 1) and (day 2).

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