Council ponders interesting times on the horizon
By Ernie Hood
As usual, there was a wide-ranging agenda at the 136th meeting of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council May 22-23 at NIEHS, including the current NIH budget situation. Like its sister institutes and centers, NIEHS could be facing what one speaker described as interesting times and challenging times in the year ahead, at a time when the environmental health sciences are achieving major advances in research and the application review process.
Strategic plan nearing the finish line
NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., updated Council on a variety of news and highlights from the institute since its last meeting in February, including recent meetings and events, awards, and scientific publications. She reported that the new NIEHS strategic plan for 2012-2017 is nearing completion. The current draft, (https://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/od/strategicplan/draft_niehs_strategic_plan_4102012.pdf) which includes eleven strategic goals, was posted to the NIEHS website in April.
“What we’re working on right now is developing implementation strategies,” Birnbaum told the Council members. “These are the internal strategies that NIEHS is developing to define what we will do, when we will do it, and how much it will cost.” The finalized plan is scheduled to be published in July, following an intensive 18-month process spearheaded by NIEHS Deputy Director Richard Woychik, Ph.D.
Birnbaum noted that there is no expectation that Congress will enact a budget prior to the fall election, and may not do so until after the new president and Congress are seated in January, meaning funding will continue at current or reduced levels until such time as a budget is passed. Although other agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other parts of the government have already seen or are bracing for substantial budget cuts, she said the outlook for NIEHS is a flat budget, which is, actually, a positive outcome given the current atmosphere. Birnbaum announced, per a recent executive order, that a 30 percent cut in travel expenses is to be implemented, along with preapproval and additional reporting and record keeping associated with conference expenses.
On the extramural front
Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., reported that there continues to be good progress in improving the review process for environmental health sciences applications at the NIH Center for Scientific Review. The Systemic Injury from Environmental Exposure Special Emphasis Panel (SEP) will be reconstituted, running as a trial for 2-3 review cycles, and possibly going on longer, if needed. The first meeting of the reconstituted SEP is anticipated to be held in February 2013, for review of applications submitted this fall. “The idea over the long term is to establish a chartered study section with permanent membership to incorporate the needs of our field,” Collman noted.
She also briefed Council on a possible new NIH policy for fiscal year 2013, mandating a process for special Council review of funding applications from investigators with more than $1.5 million in total research costs. She outlined the criteria for inclusion and how the threshold would be determined.
Program concepts get the green light
Fred Tyson, Ph.D., of the DERT Cellular, Organ, and Systems Pathobiology Branch, detailed a program called Toxicant Exposures and Responses by Genomic and Epigenomic Regulators of Transcription (TaRGET), a four-phase initiative designed to accelerate progress in epigenetics and epigenomics using the latest sequencing technology and integrating environmental exposure data from population studies.
Following up on the results of an expert panel workshop held in 2010, Health Scientist Administrator Michael Humble, Ph.D., presented a proposed Funding Opportunity Announcement titled “Role of the Environment in the Development of Autoimmune Disease.” The $2.5 million program would support 6-8 awards for innovative basic, epidemiological, and interdisciplinary research aimed at understanding mechanisms by which the environment and environmental exposures influence the development and exacerbation of autoimmune disease.
Council also enjoyed two scientific presentations (see related story), an overview of the NIH budget process, an analysis of the progression of the NIEHS neurodegeneration research portfolio from 1986-2009, and a candid report from the NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, Sally Rockey, Ph.D. (see text box).
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)
Interesting times, challenging times
That was the message from Sally Rockey, Ph.D., deputy director for extramural research at NIH, as she described the many options being weighed in Bethesda, Md., for how to manage flat or dwindling research funding in austere times.
She noted that the NIH budget is flat under the President’s FY2013 budget proposal but, echoing Birnbaum’s assessment for NIEHS, she said, “Considering the tough economic times that all of the federal government is under, having a flat budget proposal from the President actually was a win for us.” At the same time, NIH is being asked to keep the number of new and competing research project grants steady or even to increase them. With a flat budget, she explained, keeping flat or increasing competing awards puts pressure on all of the organization’s past commitments.
One option for NIH is to continue to manage NIH resources much as in the past, but to simply trim spending across the board. That would involve no systemic changes, only annual belt-tightening for all programs, which could result in continued reductions in success rates in grant applications, and could risk innovation as applicants play it safe to get through peer review.
Other options being pondered include reducing or limiting the average size of an award, limiting the number of awards held by a grantee, limiting the amount of funds a grantee can hold, or even limiting salaries of grantees.
Each of those options has its advantages and disadvantages, but according to Rockey, the only one that would result in significant savings would be limiting the amount of funds a grantee could hold. The major objection to that redistributive approach, said Rockey, is that NIH is essentially a meritocracy. “That’s what we’re about,” she said. “We believe that the best science should be funded regardless of who’s doing it, so this would be quite a different mindset for how we support science in this country.”