ASCB Weighs-in on DARPA-like Agency at NIH

It’s been seven months since it was first proposed in President Biden’s State of the Union address yet significant unknowns1 still remain surrounding the administration’s plan to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). ARPA-H would be modeled after the existing Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for developing emerging technologies for use by the military.

ASCB’s Public Policy Committee (PPC) has spent a great deal of time trying to understand the intentions of the Biden plan. Committee members have participated in White House-sponsored discussion sessions, followed congressional testimony by administration officials, and participated in briefings by proponents of the proposal.

In an October letter to Congress (https://bit.ly/3cUe6z3), the Committee outlined a number of concerns it still has about the Biden proposal. It will be up to Congress to make many of the important decisions about the creation of ARPA-H.

In its letter, the ASCB said its main concern was that having ARPA-H within the NIH would “fundamentally alter the character of the NIH, which is a huge ‘success story’ in the United States.” In addition, the Committee expressed concern that “the initial white paper calling for the formation of ARPA-H, and in public presentations by ARPA-H advocates, promotes the narrative that the current government-funded biomedical research agencies ‘do not work.’ We utterly reject this narrative.”

The willingness of federally funded academic research labs “to take large risks to make large gains” is an essential, first step in the present research pipeline that has resulted in innovation, therapy development, and job creation that has made the U.S. biomedical research enterprise the envy of the world. In its letter, the ASCB expresses concern that too much of a focus on “results” instead of “discovery” could be detrimental.

A significant difference between current NIH funding mechanisms and DARPA-like funding is that funds are awarded in the form of contracts, not grants. If a DARPA-like agency is unsatisfied with the progress being made by researchers, they are able to swiftly withdraw all funding. Not only is this funding model unfamiliar to those in the NIH community, the loss of a contract could have serious implications on the critical training and career development responsibilities of an academic lab.

The committee also expressed concern about how success would be measured. ARPA-H, if created, would carry significant expectations. It was a topic in a Presidential State of the Union address, in which the President made a commitment that ARPA-H would “develop breakthroughs to prevent, detect, and treat diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer,” and it carries the hopes of some in the disease community who lack faith in the NIH. 

In biomedical sciences, return on investment is often measured over decades, not years. The PPC is concerned that community and political attention to ARPA-H may not last long enough to see real success.

Reference

1Wilson KM (2021). The knowns and unknowns of ARPA-H. ASCB Newsletter 44(4), 27.

About the Author:


Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: kwilson@ascb.org

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