A mechanism for funding biomedical research at NIH that transcends Institute and Center boundaries is bearing fruit
A fundamental challenge facing all institutions of science, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is whether their structures and disciplines, inherited from the past, continue to reflect the reality of current science and the needs of future science. Without an explicit process of adaptation to changes that often transcend established scientific structures and disciplines, the risk of missing emerging opportunities grows. This is why, 10 years ago, NIH launched an approach to the support of science that transcended all Institutes and Centers, known as the “NIH Roadmap” (1). The NIH Director and the Director of each of the NIH Institutes engaged in a broad priority-setting exercise, informed by extramural and intramural NIH scientists, public representatives, and leaders from other government agencies and the private sector. We asked three questions: What are today’s most pressing scientific challenges? What are the roadblocks to progress and what must be done to overcome them? Which efforts are beyond the mandate of one or a few institutes, but are the responsibility of NIH as a whole? Each of the initial Roadmap programs that emerged was designed to achieve defined goals or transition to other sources of support within 10 years. As we have reached the 10th anniversary of these programs, a look back is in order.
All Institutes and Centers contributed 1% of their budgets to a common pool, and criteria were established to prioritize the many ideas that came from the consultation sessions; these criteria have changed little during the past 10 years (see the first table). With the 2006 NIH Reform Act, Congress established the NIH Common Fund within the Office of the Director, and it was authorized as a line item in the NIH budget; in fiscal year (FY) 2007, $483 million was appropriated (1.7% of the NIH budget). The Act stipulated that the Fund could not drop to a lower percentage, and anticipated a rise to 5%. As of 2014, the budget is $531 million (1.8% of NIH total appropriation) (see the first figure and second table) (Fig. 1).
As many of the initial programs conclude this year, final outcome assessments have not been completed, but regular external scientific panel reviews and informal assessments indicate that most of the programs have had positive outcomes. The vision-setting process for the NIH as a whole has thus delivered new technologies, research tools, experimental approaches, and large data sets that are enabling investigator-initiated research across the NIH. New ways of supporting high-risk and high-reward research have been tested. We believe that it is unlikely that these goals could have been achieved without the Common Fund.
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