Guest Update by Dr. John E. Niederhuber
Embracing Opportunities and Overcoming Challenges
There was palpable enthusiasm this week at the AACR annual meeting in Washington, D.C., and it was warranted, given the excellent quality of science being presented and the many exciting research opportunities emerging. The meeting comes at a time of significant leadership change at NCI. With the nomination of Dr. von Eschenbach to be FDA commissioner, there is the expected speculation and concern about future NCI leadership. A dip in NCI's budget adds worries that progress will be dampened. These are valid concerns that I addressed during my remarks on April 2 at AACR.
I'd like to congratulate Andy on the truly remarkable job he has done these past 4 years. The dedication and fervor that he brought to the director's position will be felt throughout NCI and the cancer community for years to come. The transition of NCI leadership and operational control following Andy's appointment as Acting FDA Commissioner has been achieved through both formal delegations of authority and day-to-day adjustments on the part of NCI leadership and staff and the broader community. The smoothness of this transition reflects our shared commitment to the urgency of our mission, and I appreciate the tremendous support you have given to NCI and to me.
At the AACR meeting, I saw many colleagues with whom I have worked during my 30-year career as a researcher and clinician. As I told many of them, I have seen the strength of the institute's leadership and their commitment to the tremendous national research enterprise of which NCI is an integral part. That leadership role, and that interaction with and outreach to the cancer community, will not change.
There is, of course, much more that needs to be and will be done. How we approach our goals will be influenced by the institute's financial resources, which for the near future essentially are expected to be flat or slightly decreased. It's important to note that the budget situation, while concerning, is not a new phenomenon. Budgets are subject to cycles, and NCI has seen similar budget situations in the early 1980s and 1990s.
We are taking this current cycle in stride; the heads of each NCI division and center have done an incredible job of setting priorities and making very tough funding decisions. Our fiscal priorities are clear: funding first-time investigators and maintaining the R01 payline and the number of grants funded. As I travel and talk to young investigators, I've heard time and again that having an NIH grant, even if it is significantly reduced, maintains their status in their institutions and gives them the standing needed when seeking funding from other sources.
For this fiscal year, we also are increasing the resources that we set aside each year for competing research project grants (RPGs) to fund exceptions to the regular payline - typically applications of high programmatic interest. In past years, this amount has been around 10 percent of competing RPG resources; for 2006, we are holding approximately 15 percent in reserve. In addition, through our star R01 program, the payline for first-time grantees will continue to be set at levels significantly above the average R01 grant.
For the research community, the evolving budgetary environment means we must make our strongest arguments about the importance of our scientific accomplishments. It also means we must continue efforts to leverage our resources, partnering with other government agencies and with other private and public sector entities. I believe this can best be accomplished through integration within our portfolio, large-scale integrative cancer biology programs, and continued growth of multidisciplinary team science.
No one can deny that significant challenges lie ahead. Likewise, no one can deny that there also are grand opportunities - the most potentially rewarding opportunities ever. During this time, NCI's most important job is one of leadership. We must become a true resource for the scientific community.
In short, our job during this period is to help the community rise to challenges and embrace new opportunities. There is no way one could attend a conference like AACR and not come away thinking that both can be done.