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Environmental Factor, February 2013

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NIEHS welcomes NINDS director

By Eddy Ball

Story Landis, Ph.D.

Landis said she is dedicated to making sure NINDS can support the best science and as much of it as possible. Landis made it clear that she refuses to let loyalty to underperforming programs keep NINDS from looking ahead to such needs as driving drug development, discovering ways to prevent such diseases as epilepsy, and devoting more resources to traumatic brain disorder research. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

After talking about Landis’ stellar scientific career, Birnbaum set the stage for a narrative of struggle with financial and programmatic challenges at NINDS. Birnbaum has warned grantees and employees, on several occasions, of budget-driven change that may very well be on the horizon. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Cidlowski, Ph.D.

NIEHS lead researcher John Cidlowski, Ph.D., was one of several intramural scientists on hand for the talk. One effect of Landis’ realignment of resources at NINDS was cutting the number of lead researchers there by some 33 percent. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) Director Story Landis, Ph.D., was at NIEHS Jan. 17 to give a talk on “Managing in Difficult Times: The NINDS Experience.”

Her topic wasn’t the fascinating science supported by her institute, but instead the difficult decisions NIH leaders need to make about programs, to deal with flat budgets and possible spending cuts on the horizon. As NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., said in her introduction of Landis, “She’s going to be talking about reality.” 

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 (Re)visioning research programs and priorities

Landis became the head of NINDS in 2003, during the final year of what NIH veterans remember fondly as the doubling — a five-year period during which the total budget for biomedical research at NIH grew to twice its fiscal year 1998 level. Almost before she was settled in her new office, Landis began to face difficult budget and program choices, when the heady times of unprecedented growth and funding for new initiatives gave way to what she described as the undoubling, as revenue in real dollars stabilized, while inflation pushed expenses ever higher.

According to Landis, the NINDS funding challenge is complicated by the other challenges her institute faces. These include the sheer number of neurological diseases NINDS scientists study, many of them quite rare, and little or no interest on the part of drug companies, or pharma, to devote resources to ushering promising discoveries through the long and expensive process of clinical trials. Pharma, she explained, has been discouraged by failed trials, a glut of drugs already on the market, and the small markets for new drugs.

What NINDS needed — and what other NIH institutes may soon face, as well — was a radical restructuring of priorities and programs. So Landis and her leadership began the often painful process of creating innovative translational programs, and redirecting resources from traditional funding designs to new ones.

Along the way, that meant taking what were sometimes extreme measures. These included sacrificing sacred cows, such as underperforming Morris K. Udall Centers of Excellence for Parkinson's Disease Research; initiating more extensive and more frequent review of programs; asking tougher questions of researchers and pushing for transparency, as well as the reporting of negative results; pursuing new ways of conducting public-private partnerships to give pharma more incentive to pursue new drug development; introducing NeuroNEXT, which features a central institutional review board that reduced protocol to patient time from two years to two months; and institutionalizing sunset provisions for programs.

Unlike past practices, when project grants now end, Landis explained, “You have to do something entirely different.”

Feeling the pain

Under Landis’ direction, every part of NINDS, from its relatively small in-house research group to its extensive grants portfolio, felt the pressure to become leaner and meaner, by cutting underperforming programs and streamlining operations to cut administrative overhead.

The audience, who ranged from lead researchers from the in-house laboratory groups at NIEHS and grants portfolio analysts and administrators, to members of the NIEHS Office of Management’s Financial Management Branch, naturally had questions about the push back Landis and her team faced from interest groups. She answered their questions candidly and concluded with her bottom line.

“We are just really tough,” she said.

Rick Woychick, Jerry Phelps and Kimberly McAllister wait in line to question Landis.

There was no shortage of questions following the presentation. NIEHS Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., left, joined DERT Program Analyst Jerry Phelps, center, and Health Science Administrator Kimberly McAllister, Ph.D., as they waited their turns to query Landis. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Pat Mastin, Ph.D. and Molly Puente, Ph.D.

NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) Deputy Director Pat Mastin, Ph.D., left, and Grants Management Specialist Molly Puente, Ph.D., were among many in the audience who were keenly interested in how Landis redirected grant resources at NINDS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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