|T H E N I H C A T A L Y S T||J U L Y A U G U S T 2002|
|F R O M||T H E||D E P U T Y||D I R E C T O R||F O R||I N T R A M U R A L||R E S E A R C H|
SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS:
WORKING GROUPS OF SCIENTISTS WITH SIMILAR INTERESTS DRIVEN BY SPECIFIC
MOLECULES, METHODOLOGY, AND MODEL ORGANISMS SPRANG UP QUICKLY,
The concept of special interest groups (SIGs) at NIH was formalized eight years ago, shortly after I became DDIR and with the strong encouragement of Harold Varmus, who had just assumed the directorship of NIH.
The idea grew out of the important contributions made by pre-existing grassroots trans-NIH scientific groups such as the Lambda Lunch (bacterial and phage genetics), structural biology, glycobiology, and immunology. Similar in concept was a major recommendation of the 1992 Klausner committee report on intramural administration that suggested that the creation of "faculties" at NIH would give scientists a stronger voice in decision-making about science issues at NIH.
We started with six cross-cutting SIGs (structural biology, immunology, cell biology, molecular biology and biochemistry, neurobiology, and genetics) and added clinical research shortly thereafter. Small working groups of scientists with similar interests driven by specific molecules, methodology, and model organisms sprang up quickly, and this current issue of The NIH Catalyst lists a total of 89 SIGs.
Although the level of activity of these groups varies, many have a regular seminar series and occasional workshops, and they provide a support group for trainees and new scientists entering a particular research area.
The Office of Intramural Research and the Office of the Director, NIH, support websites and cost of conference facilities and also have a small budget to help defray the cost of bringing speakers to a few special SIG-sponsored workshops.
In addition, the SIGs assist with the Research Festival, nominate speakers for the NIH Directors Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series, and contribute in a major way to the high quality of speakers who come to NIH.
Overall, my sense is that the SIGs have been a successful experiment, leading to collaborations across institutes and giving scientists a stronger voice in obtaining resources and recruiting colleagues to the intramural program.
Our tenure-track scientists have told me how much they appreciate finding like-minded colleagues quickly after their arrival at NIH, and I frequently use the SIGs as a source of advice when I am looking for experts in a specific scientific area. Good suggestions about how to do things better at NIH have come from the SIGs, whose chairs I meet with annually.
How can we strengthen the effectiveness and influence of the SIGs at the NIH? Our new director, Elias Zerhouni, has challenged our scientific directors to help define biomedical research bottlenecks and knowledge gaps that can be filled by intramural research activities and infrastructure. Can we use the existing SIGs more effectively to identify areas of research and infrastructure requirements in which the intramural program should be taking a lead?
Current exciting opportunities in neuroscience, functional imaging, structural biology, and immunology, including vaccine development, among many others, have benefited from the interactions between the scientific leadership at NIH and the SIGs. As new areas of research develop (for example, stem cell biology), can we use the SIGs to mobilize interest, define needed resources, and provide direction in support of such activities?
Historically, our SIGs and other trans-NIH groups have provided a useful focus for concentrating talent and resources on problems of importance to the scientific community at large.
For example, the development of recombinant DNA technology was given a boost by the concentration of phage and bacterial geneticists at NIH; advances in HIV research benefited from the large concentration of retrovirologists and HIV researchers at NIH; trans-NIH imaging activities have made us a leader in this area; array users have helped spread this research tool quickly in the Intramural Research Program.
I would appreciate feedback on how the SIGs can be even more effective than they are now, especially in the development of new research areas. As always, I welcome and encourage your thoughts on this issue.
Deputy Director for Intramural Research
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