Friday, 06 December 2013 10:05

Insiders and Outsiders: NIH Goes Face-to-Face with Cell Biologists

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bargmann and lorschTwo faces of new directions at NIH: outsider
Cori Bargmann (left) and insider Jon Lorsch (right).
Photo credit: (left) Heeun Jang, (right) NIH
One is an insider who just came in from the outside, the other, an outsider serving as an advisor at the very highest level. But both are key players in the future of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Both will be on stage at the ASCB Annual Meeting in New Orleans on Monday, December 16, at 1:30 pm in Room 356.

The outsider turned NIH insider is Jon Lorsch, who left his Johns Hopkins University lab where he studied translation initiation largely through yeast to become the new Director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). The outsider is ASCB member Cori Bargmann of the Rockefeller University who was asked last April by NIH Director Francis Collins to serve as co-chair of an advisory working group to suggest strategies for the NIH portion of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advanced Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. Both say they are coming to talk and to listen to ASCB members.

Lorsch arrived at NIGMS at a stormy moment in NIH history. His appointment as NIGMS chief was officially announced in March  but he only took office in August, just in time for the sequestration crisis and then the federal shutdown. As NIGMS Director, Lorsch presides over a $2.4 billion budget, which makes NIGMS the leading source of extramural federal research support for many ASCB members as well as a major funder of training and minority diversity programs. Lorsch will field questions on the future course of NIGMS and its role in basic science.

Francis Collins talked Bargmann into this job. During the White House announcement, President Obama said, "So there is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember. And that knowledge could be—will be—transformative."

To figure out how NIH would advance that transformation, Collins decided to keep control of the BRAIN Initiative in the Director's office but make it a cross-institute project. He asked Bargmann to co-chair a sort of cross-disciplinary scouting party. The working group held four "consultative" meetings over the summer, starting with a session last May in San Francisco on the molecular and biological challenges. Sessions on structural neurobiology, computation and big data, as well as human neurobiology followed. The result was the interim report submitted September 16. "It's 58 single-spaced pages," says Bargmann with mild disbelief, but it's the reason she's coming to ASCB. She likens the preliminary report to an early draft of a journal paper and she is looking for what she describes as "reviewers' comments."

Bargmann explains, "I'm really interested in what ASCB members say [about the report] as another group of reviewers. We have ideas about how this project will intersect with a lot of things in cell biology so we're open to hearing what cell biologists have to say."

Bargmann says that the working group quickly concluded that at least in the short term, there are still quite a few basic problems in neuroscience yet to be solved. The technologies that do exist to probe such things as circuit properties in the brain are not robust and desperately need what Bargmann calls, "a boost up to the next level of sophistication." Yet these existing technologies had their roots in cell biology research. "I think that's where the next advance will come from as well," she says. "From the perspective of the ASCB, one of the important lessons is that there are a lot of ideas here that are going to be very familiar to cell biologists."

The final working group report is not due until June 2014. That means, says Bargmann "This is really the time for people to think about the first ideas [in the interim report] and to provide feedback that will be heard." The final report will take the general goals outlined in the preliminary report and turn them into explicit recommendations, she says. "What are the essential advances needed to reach these goals? What are the mechanisms that would be best for doing that, what is the role for individuals with great ideas, and what is the role for collaborations?"

Serving on the working group has been a huge time drain for Bargmann but she figures that volunteering for leadership and service is the price of being a senior scientist in an American research enterprise that is still largely guided by scientists themselves. "Senior people are definitely expected to do this sort of thing. At this point in their careers, senior people are expected to say, 'Okay, for the next few years, I'll be the chair of the department' or 'for the next year, I'll be the president of ASCB' or whatever it is that's needed," she says.

Getting reviewers' comments from cell biologists is what's needed now, Bargmann says. "There's a big role here for the kind of thinking and approaches that cell biology brings."

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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