If You Wanted To Develop The National Institutes Of Health Today, What Might It Look Like?

According to ScienceInsider, Japan is taking a serious look at the National Institutes of Health as a model for a new scientific agency.  However, it’s not entirely clear that Japan is interested in duplicating the NIH, per se.  The ScienceInsider article isn’t clear, as it seems to also suggest that the new health initiatives would be pursued by a revamped existing agency.  Other news outlets are focused on other parts of the Growth Plan approved by the Japanese government, and I don’t speak the language.  Let’s work with this part of the article:

“The plan notes that a “Japanese NIH” could better meld governmental, academic, and private sector efforts “in order to strongly support the commercialization of innovative medical technologies.” The new agency would be expected to ‘formulate a comprehensive strategy and prioritize goals and research targets for medical R&D.'”

This suggests to me that Japan is not looking to reproduce the U.S. NIH, but more to focus on transferring knowledge and research results into clinical practice and application.  Now this is something that the NIH does not have a strong handle on, if you look closely at the struggles associated with forming the National Center for the Advancement of Translational Sciences (NCATS).  That’s not to say the NIH shouldn’t be observed by other countries seeking to improve their biomedical research enterprise.  It does suggest that the shorthand of a “Japanese NIH” does not provide clarity with its brevity.

The Growth Plan does not look only at NIH for guidance in improving its medical innovation capacity, the research model embodied (usually, but not always) by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was mentioned in the Growth Plan as well.  But neither model seems likely to be effectively implemented until the Council for Science and Technology Policy gets sufficient authority to better coordinate interagency research efforts.  To that end, examining existing interagency coordination mechanisms overseen by the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy may prove useful.

Let’s say the headline of the ScienceInsider piece was closer to the mark than the article suggests and Japan was looking to replicate the NIH.  Perhaps they might do well to at least consider the generally dismissed 2011 proposal from Arizona State University President Michael Crow, along with former Mayo Clinic CEO Denis Cortese and 2001 Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine Leland Hartwell.  Instead of 27 institutes, the authors suggest three: one focusing on biomedical systems research (integrating behavioral, environmental and sociological work with lab findings in biomedicine), one on health outcomes (arguably a much larger and more comprehensive version of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences) and one on health transformation (focused more on the delivery of health care).

Granted, the legislative heavy lifting required would rival that of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (which has gone just swell), and the proposal probably sinks on that point alone.  Government is even less prepared than the private sector for Schumpeterian creative destruction.  THe proposal does bring out the old tensions about funding basic science and letting applications and innovations fend for themselves.  The old thinking about scientific and technological knowledge development persists, even as it becomes more and more clear that the linear model describes an increasingly small percentage of that development.

The logistics of the proposal are problematic, but the ideas within are worth considering and pursuing.  Just because a disease-focused model for supporting biomedical health research has made sense for decades does not mean that it always will.  Perhaps it’s too soon to scrap it entirely, but I think diversifying the support system makes good sense.  Not that I expect it to happen.


One thought on “If You Wanted To Develop The National Institutes Of Health Today, What Might It Look Like?

  1. Pingback: Japanese Science Policy Corner – Health and Earthquake | Pasco Phronesis

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