Francis Collins assures Congress that NCATS won't draw from basic research

March 21, 2012

via the Nature News Blog we learn that NIH Director Collins has been called upon by Congress to explain NCATS. This is the acronym for his pet project a Center dedicated to “Translational Science” that required axing the venerable National Center for Research Resources.

Collins noted that NIH’s support for basic research has held steady at about 54% of the agency’s budget for decades. “I do not expect that percentage to change,” he said. He added repeatedly that all but 2% of the $575 million funding the translational medicine center this year comes from preexisting NIH programs, and is not “new” money.

Some legislators, understanding quite clearly that money is fungible were keen to press Collins:

Representative Cynthia Lummis, Republican of Wyoming, interrupted Collins to insist that he explain how the $64 million increase proposed for NCATS in 2013 can’t be seen as being largely funded by a cut to the Institutional Development Award (IDEA) program. The NIH in 2013 has proposed cutting $50.5 million from the program, which funds biomedical investigators, trainees and infrastructure in 23 largely rural states that have historically experienced low application success rates for NIH grants.

“I would not want you to see a direction connection between…the IDEA program and NCATS. Those are not the same dollars that just got moved from one box to another,” Collins responded.

“Dollars are dollars,” Lummis replied.

Exactly. And similarly there are plenty of imaginable grants that would be “translational science” that Collins will get to score in the “basic” category as well. Another CongressCritter argued with Collins that a prior boost to the IDEA program was intended to be permanent, something Collins disputed. Yes, keeping track of this slippery customer down the line will be pretty hard for our intrepid Congressional heroes.

There was another bit of testimony that drew my eye because it speaks to the potential upside of NCATS rather than whinging (ahem) about the costs to other programs. NCATS is supposed to somehow do better than the pharma industry. Ok, fine, but it sort of presumes the pharma industry is full of morons*. I’ve seen this before from academics under various guises of “Rational Drug Design” and the like. I am, shall we say, skeptical. In this particular bit of testimony on the “we’re smarter than they are, nyah, nyah” defense for NCATS a BigPharma type observed that FC is full of stuff and nonsense:

That view was challenged later in the hearing by Roy Vagelos, the former CEO of Merck, who said that the pharmaceutical industry spends about $50 billion annually, or roughly 100 times the NCATS budget, without solving the problems, like inadequate toxicology, that cause so many failures in drug development . “Does anyone in the audience believe that there is something that NCATS is going to do that the industry thinks is critical and that they are not doing? That is incredible to think that. If you believe that you believe in fairies.”

Vagelos added that, with success rates for applicants for NIH grants at historic lows, “We would be doing a lot more good for getting important new drugs on the market,” by funding more young investigators.

Word, PharmaDude, word.

*unless it addresses things that the profit industry is not really capable of grappling with such as their penchant for huge payoff, block buster, serves everyone type of drugs.

No Responses Yet to “Francis Collins assures Congress that NCATS won't draw from basic research”

  1. Dev Says:


    how about exploring the actual real reasons for maintaining a closed economy in a continuously expanding population?

    Common sense would indicate that more resources with more people should yield an improved life, improved economy, and great breakthroughs with long lasting effect.

    The budget limits everything else. But the budget must be reflecting the permissive part of the economic system to either maintain the institutions or shuffle them around. That seems like an awful amount of time and mind resources used to keep things the same. Yet appear different, or are forced to do so unnecessarily.

    The childish analogy would be:

    A limited number of candies in a changing pinata style for which an increasing number of party goers align under. Still the same number of people get the candies, but they only hold them for increasingly shorter time, and in the process the bruises leave more and more bodies lying all over the floor. A waste of human resources and a waste of resources invested in their way to the pinata party.

    Solution: open the economy to match population number with a reliable currency system.

    Laws were written to set this way, it no longer works for the present society, they can honestly be worked to reflect real numbers, not imaginary betting of fake value.


  2. OneCritic Says:

    Dr. Collins has frequently stated that none of his initiatives will decrease the NIH commitment to basic research. As in his exchange with Congresswoman Lummis, he seems to deny a fundamental arithmetic fact, namely that if one slice of a pie of fixed size gets bigger then other slices must get smaller. He also tries to walk a fine line in saying that NCATS is too small to have much of an effect on the overall NIH portfolio but it is big enough to solve important problems that the pharmaceutical industry has not been able to solve. I imagine that Dr. Vagelos (who was a distinguished clinician/research and academic before moving on to an exceptional career at Merck) speaks for many in the pharmaceutical industry who are skeptical that Dr. Collins and his colleagues are so much smarter than they are that the dragons in the “valley of death” will be slain.


  3. physioprof Says:

    While it is of course reasonable to make R01 paylines and per-investigator success rates a priority, taken to the extreme, this will destroy the NIH biomedical research enterprise. Because the end-game of R01-paylines-and-per-investigator-success-rates-uber-alles is large numbers of PIs with single R01s whose budgets are too small to get anything done.


  4. Grumble Says:

    To address Vagelos’ criticism: isn’t one of the points of NCATS to fund development of drugs that the pharma industry doesn’t want to invest in because it thinks the market will be too small to justify the cost? It’s not so much “NCATS can do it better than pharma, nyah nyah”, as “pharma won’t do it, so NCATS will”.


  5. Drugmonkey Says:

    It will be interesting to see if NCATS does this, yes. That’s what the footnote was about.


  6. Dr Becca Says:

    Re: Grumble’s point (and yours, DM)–that was the impression I got at my NIH sekrits thingie on Monday. From the brief bit of time they spent talking about NCATS, it sounds like big pharma is losing interest in certain areas of neuro-related R&D, and this is NIH’s “chance” to pick up the slack.


  7. Joe Says:

    “If you believe that you believe in fairies.”
    But Francis Collins does believe in fairies and has publicly admitted that and written about it. I wonder if that magical thinking affects his views on the likely success of his projects.


  8. OncoDev Says:

    I have been following the NCATs story closely. My major concern is not whether NIH will change the ratio of Translation / Basic research (although since no one seems to be able to define translational this is highly manipulable). What I fear most is that NCATs will enable the move to consolidate research funding to major medical schools where monies are either (A) given directly to the CTSI for it to disperse as internal subawards or that (B) is indirectly controlled by the CTSI center. Our CTSI has consolidated almost all internal funding under their purview, which both allows them to show NIH they have leverage but also gives them much greater control over individual PIs. They also are taking over all support departments that mainly get their money through fee for service such as pre-clinical pathology and biostatistics. Because they require ‘Mapping” and their approval for any grant that proposes to use these resources, they in effect have a large impact on whether such grants can be sent out for review. This can be scary since their are really 4-5 people who make these decisions and our Medical School has over 200 TT PIs. As I understand it, NCATs will be a major avenue for large multi-PI grants to be funded, and I am convinced at least my University wants these grants to be directly awarded to CTSI or administratively controlled by the CTSI. This seems to also be in line with how F. Collins likes to do research e.g. large vertically integrated centers with a very small number of people who control all funding and with his statements regarding how research is best carried out.


  9. katia Says:

    Francis Collins is a self-declared believer who happens to have shown an enthusiastic heart and a very well organized brain. Life has peculiar turns and I suspect that the ones who fought his nomination as NIH Director on the grounds that he is a believer are the ones who are now guiding and forcing him to believe in fairies.

    Transient disorientation can happen to anyone, even to the most privileged brains. And I hope his heart to be sensitive to the voices of reason that the people’s shouting and cry-out. He will wake up if we keep shouting and accompanying him in his disorientation.

    I love Andrea Boccelli and his bilingual songs. Here is one to you Francis!. We believe in you regardless our faith or no-faith in your God of life.

    Maybe someone who knows italian can translate the italian part for the rest of us.


  10. katia Says:


    In paragraph 2, line 2, it should read:…” to the voices of reason and the shouting and people’s shouting and cry out…”


  11. katia Says:

    sorry again. my brain is disoriented too

    it should read ” to the voices of reason and the people’s shouting and cry-out”


  12. […] legitimate debate about whether or not NCATS will duplicate what drug companies do, but at an insufficient scale. And […]


  13. Eli Rabett Says:

    You shouldn’t trust Pharma any further than you can throw them and that includes on toxicology. There are stories out there in the naked city. . .


  14. anon Says:

    Here is the translation for katia : Because we believe by Andrea Bocelli

    Look outside: its morning
    This is a day you’ll remember
    Hurry, get up and go
    There are those who believe in you
    Don’t give up

    Once in every life
    There comes a time
    We walk out all alone
    And into the light
    The moment won’t last but then,
    We remember it again
    When we close our eyes.

    Like stars across the sky
    And in order to shine
    You will have to win
    We were born to shine
    All of us here because we believe

    Look ahead and never turn your back
    On the caress of your dreams,
    Your hopes and then,
    Turn towards the day that will be
    There is a finish line there.

    Like stars across the sky
    And in order to shine
    You will have to win
    We were born to shine
    All of us here because we believe

    Don’t give up
    Someone is with you

    Like stars across the sky
    We were born to shine
    And in order to shine
    You will have to win


  15. CE Says:

    I feel pretty strongly about NCATS, and seemingly in the opposite direction as most basic scientists. As an engineer working in biomedicine, I am regularly asked why I am tackling XX problem instead of leaving it to the drug companies. The answer IMO is blatant and simple, and it’s the same answer that NCATS detractors can be given: The drug companies haven’t solved the problem. I’m a smart person, and I’d like to give it my best.

    Basic science is nothing to society at large if the tools to transform knowledge into live-saving therapy are not there. Engineering solutions to biomedical problems are more than worthy, IMO, of taxpayer money. It’s never been clear to me that the NIH understands that the engineering is more than just an afterthought.


  16. DrugMonkey Says:

    Any reason the things you (want to) do can’t be done under the existing IC set Candid?


  17. CE Says:

    In principle, sure, what I want to do can be done under existing ICs. However, in my (albeit limited) experience of submitting my own grants and participating in the submission of others, reviewers in the appropriate ICs and study sections place an (unduly?) strong emphasis on the basic science it. I would say the issue is mentality based as opposed to lack of mechanism. As to whether or not putting the word Translational directly in the name will have any effect on mentality? Not sure. But the spirit is there, and I am hoping that is enough of a catalysis to permit a greater acceptance of translational/applied biomedical work at the NIH.


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