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NIH Must Meet the Hughes Challenge

For the past 30 years the forefront of biomedical research has been synonymous with the efforts of the U.S. research community, shaped and financed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Now NIH's pre-eminence is at risk, challenged by the emergence of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) as a leader in the field. Since 1985, HHMI—with assets of $45.2 billion—has spent the better part of $485.4 million at 48 academic centers. Hughes researchers, many of them former stars o

By | April 6, 1987

For the past 30 years the forefront of biomedical research has been synonymous with the efforts of the U.S. research community, shaped and financed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Now NIH's pre-eminence is at risk, challenged by the emergence of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) as a leader in the field.

Since 1985, HHMI—with assets of $45.2 billion—has spent the better part of $485.4 million at 48 academic centers. Hughes researchers, many of them former stars of NIH extramural programs, have quickly formed a new elite, and the reason is clear: Hughes provides generous funding and requires minimal paperwork, thus freeing a scientist for research. A recent ruling by the Internal Revenue Service will now extend the Hughes largess to an increasing number of scientists (see The Scientist, January 26, 1987, pp. 16-17 and March 23, 1987, p. 3). With such good news, what can the bad news be?

It may lie in answer to the questions "Will support for the best science and the establishment of the biomedical agenda shift from the public to the private sector?" and "Will public oversight of biomedical research be lost?"

NIH's history of setting standards for excellence can be attributed to two closely linked factors—voluntary staffing by the nation's best scientists of the study sections that review grant proposals, and the provision of generous funding. Incentives for voluntary service reside in the rewards of study section membership: prestige among peers, early access to new data and ideas, and participation in the network that distributes research funds. The fruit of this system— world-class research results—has been the political hook for Congress to keep NIH's coffers full.

One question raised by Hughes' operations is whether that incentive system will continue to exist. If the cream of researchers join Hughes and (as now envisioned) are tapped to advise Hughes grantmakers, there will still be an incentive for scientists to provide service, but their loyalty is likely to shift away from NIH.

One argument against this fear is that NIH's expenditures dwarf those of Hughes. Yet in the next decade, Hughes is expected to spend more than $400 million a year on medical research—nearly 10 percent of NIH's predicted expenditures for extramural science. And with competent portfolio management, the Hughes annual outlay is likely to increase greatly. First-rate science is elitist. If even a few percent of America's very best scientists drop out of the NIH pool, there is sure to be an effect on quality at NIH, and a politically potent argument— that NIH research leads the world—will lose currency with Congress' and the public.

There's no reason to assume that HHMI will not become the patron of the best biomedical science. Given the resources available, Hughes' early track record, and a management team that shepherded NIH through the 1970s revolution in biology, HHMI stands to do a lot of good. And competition is healthy if it is recognized as such. Hughes' plans give notice that the biomedical research game is irrevocably changed. Whether NIH continues to set standards or only brings up the field will depend on its ability to develop new policies that make it as desirable to work with NIH as with HHMI. The announcement of streamlined grant proposal procedures and senior scientist awards are the first steps in the right direction.

Does it matter if the nation's top biomedical research is done with private rather than public funds? That's the serious question of social policy. In an era when the political imperative is to privatize government's functions, failure by NIH to meet the Hughes challenge may result in a loss of public funding for biomedical research far in excess of the amount of new funds available from the private sector. Most important, Hughes—unlike NIH—is accountable only to the IRS. Despite the well-deserved confidence in those now leading HHMI, their successors and their policies will always be beyond public control.

Biomedical science is too important to leave in private hands. We all have a stake in NIH's rising to this challenge from the private sector.

Panem, a virologist and policy analyst, is a program officer with the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, 630 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10020.

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