T H E   N I H   C A T A L Y S T     M A R C H  –   A P R I L   2003




by Joram Piatigorsky, Chief
Laboratory of Molecular
and Developmental Biology

I fear that reliance on the BSCs [Boards of Scientific Counselors] for sage advice is growing into acquiescence in BSC determination of the direction of NIH intramural research . . . . There ought to be no blurring of the distinctions between the NIH intramural and extramural programs.

I have been an intramural research scientist at NIH since 1967 and am deeply grateful for the extensive support and opportunities I’ve had to pursue what I believed were exciting scientific directions. As Michael Gottesman pointed out in a recent column ("What Is Special About the Intramural Research Program?" The NIH Catalyst, September-October 2002.), NIH’s unique research environment—long-term funding, unparalleled material and human resources, and a premier clinical research facility—encourages innovative science.

This article gives voice to my concern that a changing role for the Boards of Scientific Counselors (BSCs) may threaten the most important features of the intramural research program (IRP). This fear may be unfounded, but I would rather express what turns out to be an unnecessary concern than remain silent about something that means a great deal to me.

Let me make clear that I understand the need for critical review of the research of principal investigators and the usefulness of a scientific advisory board for an institution; indeed, I have benefited from reviews and have served on numerous advisory boards that were often (not always) helpful. After all, limited resources cannot be given out strictly on the basis of trust and longevity. But neither should advisory boards govern institutions or make final decisions, particularly on the thorny topic of future directions. And, certainly, no advisory board should have such decision-making power without an appropriate and effective court of appeals. I fear that reliance on the BSCs for sage advice is growing into acquiescence in BSC determination of the direction of NIH intramural research.

One argument that I hear for turning to the BSCs for leadership is accountability. Certainly NIH intramural scientists must be accountable to the scientific community for the quality and impact of their work. In the past, BSC reviews have been essentially retrospective; today we hear rumors that a major part (even 50 percent in some institutes) will be prospective. Retrospective reviews were never meant to eliminate considerations of future directions or clinical relevance, nor have they done so. But the notion that BSC reviews become as prospective as they are retrospective suggests that they are coming to be seen as substitutes for NIH R01 grants. If this is the case, it presages the elimination, not the improvement, of the IRP.

There ought to be no blurring of the distinctions between the NIH intramural and extramural programs. But I believe that’s what started to happen as R01 grants became difficult to obtain ("triaged" or "approved but not funded") at the same time academic institutions were having increasing financial problems. The IRP response to growing extramural resentment was to try to minimize the perceived advantage of intramural researchers. NIH tried its best to level the playing field of the intramural and extramural programs, as it were. But philosophical differences cannot be modified without cost, and maybe it isn’t wise to change philosophy without understanding the cost.

Clearly, academic institutions cannot survive without funding from the outside; they need to seek grants and produce "marketable" material. This says nothing about their high standards of excellence and valuable contributions, which are self-evident; it speaks only about the reality of their circumstances. By contrast, the NIH IRP has a more stable money supply, as well as a responsibility to use it well.

The mission of NIH is to alleviate human suffering from disease, and this requires synthesis of research results from basic, clinical, and applied research. Imagination and rigor are the greatest challenges for intramural scientists—not necessarily the suggestive "preliminary data" that so often inform the successful bid for NIH funding of extramural scientists. Intramural scientists co-exist and collaborate with extramural scientists; they are not and need not appear to be extramural scientists. It must be underlined that intramural scientists need not solicit funds, nor should they gear their thinking and research agenda to that end. They can take risks, fail, and try again.

They are the fortunate benefactors of a generous public’s investment of approximately 10 percent of the NIH budget. And the return on that investment has been extraordinary (see "Reflections and Projections: Taking Stock of the Intramural Program," The NIH Catalyst, May-June 2001, for a brief review).

At best (why aim for less?), intramural scientists provide new ideas, new ways of thinking about old problems and disabling diseases, and new opportunities for medicine. They can excel in such endeavors because doing research in the NIH IRP means having the time to develop ideas without the need for short-term proof of their value; it means being able to change directions when it is wise to do so.

I believe it is shortsighted to make support within the IRP depend on the BSCs to the same degree that extramural support depends on the NIH study section. Rigorous BSC review serves to improve the performance and maintain the quality of intramural research. It has great value. But to rely on the BSCs for dictating directions undermines the rationale upon which the IRP is based—and threatens to curtail the kinds of advances fostered by that rationale for more than 50 years.

The intramural program is not static, and I am not advocating that it become so. But it must be recognized that we are not the extramural program, and to move the IRP in the direction of the extramural program will not improve it; it will end it.




Dr. Piatigorsky makes many important points about the differences between the intramural program and the extramural program in his commentary. These issues are a continuing subject of discussion by the chairs of the Boards of Scientific Counselors (with whom I meet annually) and the scientific directors. Dr. Piatigorsky and I are in agreement on most of these points, especially the need for rigorous, regular review of intramural science to encourage and sustain the highest quality, most innovative science possible. To continue this discussion, I would like to summarize the current philosophy underlying the intramural review process.

The purpose of evaluation by outside reviewers is to make sure that our standards of excellence and sense of scientific direction are not parochial, but reflect the best advice from experts in our fields. We are fortunate to have members on our BSCs who are themselves first-class scientists; they are carefully vetted within the institutes and must all be appointed by me prior to service on a BSC. I look for evidence of leadership and ongoing contributions to their fields.

Three institutes (NHGRI, NICHD, and NCI) use site-visit teams led by at least two BSC members. This approach means that the initial review is mostly by subject matter experts, but the entire BSC weighs in at the end with a balanced perspective. PIs under review may challenge a reviewer in writing based on a real conflict of interest, but being "expert," and thus a potential competitor in their subject matter, does not constitute a basis for challenge.

The BSC and site-visit members are told that their function is to provide advice to the scientific directors on the scientific work of their PIs. Although this advice is almost always taken, a scientific director may choose, after discussion with me and the institute director, to follow his or her own instincts about particularly risky work or innovative investigators. There is a pamphlet given to all BSC and site visitors that defines the criteria for review:

This document makes clear that the review is primarily retrospective, but that approximately one-third of the site-visit report and the oral presentation should focus on Future Plans. The purpose of this prospective component of review is to reassure the reviewers that the PI is able to formulate good questions and develop strategies that use current (and future) technology to answer these questions.

For tenure-track investigators, who have little or no track record, such prospective review is critical. For more established investigators who have repeatedly solved difficult scientific problems in the past, Future Plans are a chance to obtain support for new investments that might be needed to advance their work. The BSC members are encouraged to use the site visit as an opportunity to evaluate the state of science in the lab at the present time, as reflected in both past accomplishments and future directions. This is a subtle point—and a strong distinction from the extramural prospective review process. This emphasis on past performance and current work is an important distinction that must be made to sustain the creativity and productivity of the intramural research program.

I hope this discussion will reassure PIs who, like Dr. Piatigorsky, are worried about the drift of the intramural review process to a more extramural review style. There is general agreement among NIH leaders that the distinction between extramural and intramural must be maintained if the intramural program is going to continue to make unique contributions to biomedical research.


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