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The Executive Officer’s Column

The NIH Roadmap: Path to Better Health Research?

On September 30, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias A. Zerhouni unveiled the “NIH Roadmap for Medical Research,” a set of bold, and potentially far-reaching initiatives that seek to transform the nation’s “center of gravity” in biomedical research. The goal is to increase capabilities and speed the movement of research discoveries from the bench to the bedside through fundamental, qualitative changes toward a more interdisciplinary approach. The changes undoubtedly will have an impact on sociologists working in health/medicine, mental health, and addiction research. The challenge for us, however, is to ensure social science is a key part of the Roadmap. It will need to be if this initiative is to truly meet the health demands of the 21st century.

The Roadmap attempts to identify major opportunities and gaps in biomedical research that no single institute at NIH could tackle alone, but that more intellectually nimble research strategies could tackle. The Roadmap is expected to provide opportunities to transform new scientific knowledge into tangible benefits. The agency expects to spend $128 million in FY 2004 on this initiative and more than $2 billion overall by FY 2009.

Two of the three Roadmap themes are of special interest to social and behavioral scientists [see NIH’s website at nihroadmap.nih.gov for complete theme list]:

Re-engineering the Clinical Research Enterprise: At the core of this theme is the need to develop new research partnerships among organized patient communities, community-based physicians, and academic researchers. This also includes the need to build better integrated networks of academic centers linked to a qualified body of community-based physicians who care for sufficiently large groups of patients interested in working with researchers to quickly develop and test new interventions.

Research Teams of the Future: NIH wants to stimulate new ways of combining skills and disciplines across the sciences. The Director’s Innovator Award will encourage investigators to take on creative, unexplored avenues of research that carry a relatively high potential for failure, but also possess a greater chance for truly groundbreaking discoveries. In addition, novel partnerships, such as those between the public and private sectors, are encouraged as a way to accelerate the movement of scientific discoveries from the bench to the bedside. NIH’s motivation here is to combat “artificial organizational barriers.” The Roadmap includes grants designed to make it easier for scientists to conduct interdisciplinary research. These new awards will provide funding for training of scientists in interdisciplinary strategies; creating specialized centers to help scientists forge new and more advanced disciplines from existing ones; and initiating forward-looking conferences to catalyze collaboration among the life and physical sciences.

The Roadmap calls for interdisciplinary teams consisting of behavioral scientists, molecular biologists, and mathematicians to combine their research tools, approaches, and technologies to solve the puzzles of complex health problems such as pain and obesity. To this end, the NIH has released the Exploratory Centers for Interdisciplinary Research Request for Applications (RFA-RR-04-002). The grants are expected to identify a biomedically relevant problem, evaluate why previous approaches have not worked, justify the planning approach and propose a timeline. A letter of intent is due by January 30, 2004, and the application receipt date is February 24, 2004.

The Challenge for Sociology

The sociological community must not simply wait for the biomedical community to “discover” the incompleteness of interdisciplinary research that omits study of social scientific factors and social context. Our engagement in the push for interdisciplinary teams and the re-engineering of the clinical enterprise are two possible ways for sociologists to help drive the new research agenda at NIH. These are paths through which the power of basic knowledge of social context can help the nation nurture a healthier population.

ASA is also being proactive to help better “connect the dots” between sociology and the biomedical community. For example, this August we invited the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Nora D. Volkow, to participate in our Annual Meeting in Atlanta.

There is also the long history of collaboration between sociologists and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). NIMH has not only supported sociologists doing important research in deviance, medical sociology, and the sociology of mental health, but also provided training grants for 30 years to fund sociology graduate students with interests in mental health through ASA’s Minority Fellowship Program. ASA is also actively engaged in helping shape NIH’s new Basic Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Working Group of the Advisory Committee to Director Zerhouni. The working group will address issues related to NIH’s support for research in the behavioral and social sciences that is fundamental to the prevention, treatment, and cure of illnesses but which is not directed at a specific disease or condition.

As social scientists we need to continue to expand our partnerships with NIH and with other disciplines to grow the nation’s basic research on social pathways, networks, mechanisms, and contexts.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer