NIH Looking For Input On Strategic Plan

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has to submit a new strategic plan to Congress by December of 2015.  This is an agency-wide strategic plan, and is focused on general goals and cross-cutting plans for the NIH.  Specific disease and/or research strategies will be covered in the strategic plan(s) for the relevant institute, office or center at NIH that is focused on that matter.

The NIH is seeking comment on the framework for its strategic plan, and released the Request for Information on July 22nd.  Comments are due by August 16th, and must run 300 words or fewer.  The questions for which the NIH seeks information are:

  • Potential benefits, drawbacks/challenges, and areas of consideration for the current framework
  • Compatibility of the framework with the broad scope of the NIH mission
  • Additional concepts in [individual institute, center or office] strategic plans that are cross-cutting and should be included in this trans-NIH strategic plan
  • Comprehensive trans-NIH research themes that have not been captured in the Areas of Opportunity that Apply Across Biomedicine
  • Components of the Areas of Opportunity that Apply Across Biomedicine that are not applicable to an NIH-wide Strategic Plan
  • Future opportunities or emerging research needs

The Areas of Opportunity that Apply Across Biomedicine listed in the framework are:

  • Promote Fundamental Science
    • Basic Science is the foundation for progress
    • Consequences of basic science discoveries are often unpredictable
    • Advances in clinical research methodologies stimulate scientific progress
    • Leaps in Technology often catalyze major scientific advances
    • Data science increases the impact and efficiency of research
  • Improve Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
    • Importance of studying healthy individuals
    • Advances in early diagnosis/detection
    • Evidence-Based interventions to eliminate health disparities
  • Advance Treatments and Cures
    • Unprecedented opportunities on the basis of molecular knowledge
    • Breakdown of traditional disease boundaries
    • Breakthroughs need partnerships and often come from unexpected directions

Again, comments are due by August 16th.  Submissions should be sent via email at the appropriate address listed in the Request for Information.

Attention Public Radio Listeners – The Surgeon General Knows His Soaps

Earlier tonight I was at the taping of this week’s edition of the NPR news quiz show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” The program was taped at Wolf Trap this evening for broadcast this weekend.  It should be available online by Sunday morning.

One segment of the program – “Not My Job” – has notable guests answer questions about things quite unrelated to their jobs.  On occasion those guests have held science and/or technology jobs in the U.S. government.  This week the guest was (will be) Surgeon General of the United States Dr. Vivek Murthy (and no, there was no discussion of why he’s a Surgeon General if he holds the rank of a Vice Admiral).  After describing his work, and his background, General Murthy was asked questions about the long-running television program General Hospital.

Murthy joins other science and technology officials that have participated in the program, usually in person.  The list now includes two Secretaries of Energy, one Director of the Centers for Disease Control, and the Director of the National Institutes of Health.

If you listen to the rest of the program (once it’s available), you will note panelist Paula Poundstone raising concerns about the studies referred to in the show.  Personally, I look at this as reasonable skepticism to the frequent conversion of study information into short soundbites that rarely communicate the full extent of the research.  Of course, that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

Science Goes To The Movies In Your Head

The City University of New York continues its series Science Goes to the Movies with two episodes focused on movies with psychological themes.

The fifth episode is available online, and covers the movies Force Majeure and RosewaterForce Majeure is a Swedish film that deals with the aftermath of a decision a father makes out of fear.  Rosewater is based on the memoir of an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was detained and interrogated by Iranian authorities following the 2009 elections in that country.  Ira Flatow joins co-hosts Faith Salie and Dr. Heather Berlin to discuss the effects of fear in Rosewater and how fear can affect people’s judgment.

The sixth episode premieres on CUNY television July 17th, and should be available online by the end of the month.  It will focus on post-traumatic stress through two recent films directed by Clint Eastwood: American Sniper and Gran Torino.  The first film focuses on an solider in Iraq and at home, and the other film chronicles the life of a Korean war veteran decades after his service.  Salie and Berlin will be joined by guests from the Marine Corps and The Headstrong Project, a program at Weill Cornell Medical College aimed at healing veterans.

Just Because The Outbreaks Aren’t In The News…

Recent developments should reinforce the notion that media coverage is not a correlation to the incidence of disease.

While the measles outbreak in California hadn’t been in the news since April, when state officials declared it over, measles wasn’t eliminated from the country.  As of June 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted 178 cases of measles reported in 2015.  Just 117 of them were connected to the California outbreak (which started in late 2014).  And today Washington state health officials reported a death from measles, the first reported death from the disease in the United States since 2003.  As the disease was once eliminated from the U.S., its reemergence reflects its persistence – and the continued resistance to vaccination.

Unfortunately, the 2014 Ebola outbreak has yet to produce a viable vaccine, and while it has dimmed from American attention, it continues to affect western Africa.  Cases continue in Sierra Leone and Guinea, and re-emerged in Liberia – more than three months after the last reported case.  Meanwhile the person appointed by the Obama Administration to coordinate the nation’s response to Ebola left that position four months ago.

So, just remember that because we’ve stopped paying attention doesn’t mean a problem has been solved.  It just no longer bothers us enough to do something.

National Library Of Medicine Urged To Lead More On Data

Last week National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins approved a report on a new strategic vision for the National Library of Medicine (NLM) (H/T ScienceInsider).  The Director requested the report at the beginning of the year, and it arrives not quite 3 months since the retirement of NLM Director Donald Lindberg, who led the Library since 1984.

NLM is responsible for a number of program related to medicine and health-related data.  PubMed is perhaps the best known outside of the biomedical community, but NLM operates many other health-related databases, physical artifacts and other records.  But the report calls fro NLM to be more of a leader in biomedical information across NIH, the federal government, and internationally.  This will include an expansion of NLM activities in data science and biomedical informatics, and the Library will need to be systematic and considerate in how it expands while continuing to deliver quality service to its many stakeholders.

The report contains specific suggestions about how NLM could expand its offerings and improve its services.  For instance, it suggests that the Big Data to Knowledge program be located in the NLM.  But with the Library needing a new Director, many of these actions will likely wait until that person is on board, and can determine the necessary adjustments to resources and personnel to implement these recommendations.

A Step Towards Standardizing DNA Sequencing

Last month The New York Times reported that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed a reference standard for use in DNA genetic sequencing.  Specifically, NIST has made available genetic material that can be tested to confirm that a lab would find the known mutations in the proper places when sequencing the reference material.  This would help assure the reliability of the testing at that lab.

By providing this testing standard, labs will be able to better demonstrate the reliability of their tests, which should stimulate demand for the tests, and may make insurance companies more likely to pay for them.  This might help address the concerns agencies like the Food and Drug Administration have had about direct-to-consumer genetic testing – at least where reliability is concerned.

While this is the first NIST reference material for genetic sequencing, it has developed reference materials for other DNA tests and procedures.  Those reference materials, developed by NIST’s Applied Genetics Lab, are usually smaller amounts of DNA, often produced via Polymerase Chain Reaction and targeted to tests looking at specific genetic sequences.

Head Of NIH Extramural Research Departing For Agriculture

Sally Rockey, the deputy director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for extramural (not performed by the agency) research, recently announced she would be leaving her post in September (H/T Nature News).  She’s been with the NIH since 2005, and worked at the Department of Agriculture for 19 years before that.

Rockey’s blog, which I hope is archived, is worth reading, not only because she has used it to solicit input on potential new NIH grant initiatives.  I found it a useful place to gain insight on the funding processes faced by biomedical researchers in a way I hadn’t seen before, and in a way that doesn’t seem to be happening (at least as publicly) in other funding agencies.

What’s also interesting about this development is where Rockey is going.  She will become the Director of the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research.  While created in 2014 by Congress, Rockey will become the Foundation’s first director.  The Foundation is a non-profit corporation that will solicit private sector support for agriculture research, and it will have some federal matching funds available. This foundation is distinct from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is part of the Agriculture Department.

I think this foundation, like the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, are tools that deserve additional consideration in this era of additional financial scrutiny.  I’m looking forward to seeing what Dr. Rockey and her staff can do.