Moving research forward: creativity amid constraints
Optimism and pessimism compete with each other as we contemplate the future for research and research funding. The prospects for important breakthroughs in NIA’s primary areas of medical research—aging and Alzheimer’s disease—have never been brighter. We receive thousands of applications each year, many deemed exceptionally worthy after peer review. On the other hand, we at the NIA and across the NIH are constrained by a budget that, in real terms, is shrinking dramatically. The 2013 sequester meant serious cuts to existing grants and limits on new ones, and there may be more cuts on the horizon. On top of that, the 16-day government shutdown threw a huge wrench in our grant submission and review process. We have been scrambling to reschedule review meetings and to keep scientists and critical research activities from experiencing gaps in funding that could shut-down labs, layoff lab staff, and end productive projects.
The downturn in support for scientific research is deeply concerning. At the NIA we know how valuable the products of your science are to people’s lives and to the country, and we are moving forward as best we can. And that is why I wanted to write for the blog today—to share with you how proud I am of the NIA and NIH staff and how impressed I am by our research community and aging and research organizations. In the midst of considerable obstacles, you have all shown extraordinary creativity and dedication on behalf of the health and well-being of older people and their families.
Let me share two recent examples.
The Geroscience Summit.
NIH Director Francis Collins welcomes attendees to the Geroscience Summit.
Last week, we wrapped up a major scientific meeting at the NIH, “Advances in Geroscience: Impact on Healthspan and Chronic Disease.” If you were able to attend, thanks for taking the time and making the trip. Almost 500 people were here to discuss the interplay between aging biology and development of disease—what’s been coined “geroscience.” As NIH Director Francis Collins put it, when he opened the conference, “It serves us well, not only to focus on disease, but to focus on health. To understand more about healthy aging and how that can occur will add to our understanding of how to improve the health of our nation and of the world.”
The recently formed Trans-NIH GeroScience Interest Group, made up of some 20 institutes and centers across NIH, developed an exciting agenda (PDF 1.04 MB), bringing together researchers in aging with those focused on specific diseases and conditions associated with advancing age. The program was provocative, the dialogue unprecedented, and I am looking forward to the recommendations from the Summit, when leaders of the meeting present their ideas on the most promising avenues for research.
A note—it’s not easy to convene a major scientific meeting under any circumstances. But in this case, the challenges were special. NIH staff could not participate in meeting preparation in the crucial weeks just before the Summit, as the government shutdown suspended operations. Fortunately, we had terrific partners in the Alliance for Aging Research and the Gerontological Society of America, who supported the meeting and continued to contact speakers and participants. Just as we were considering canceling the meeting, the government was reopened. NIH staff worked long hours to make up for lost time. The Summit, because of the efforts of so many, was a success.
National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease.
Recent efforts in Alzheimer’s disease research reflect new thinking as well. Alzheimer’s has been redefined, with diagnostic guidelines updated to account for our identification of disease markers even before clinical symptoms appear. Groundbreaking studies in neuroimaging and biomarkers continue to identify signs of Alzheimer’s at its earliest, while we test the new guidelines in clinical trials seeking to intervene as early as possible. To do this, NIH was able to allocate additional funding in fiscal years 2012 and 2013 to fund innovative gene sequencing studies, drug discovery projects and clinical trials. These projects also leverage private sector funds in new Alzheimer’s research collaborations. These and other studies should help us meet the goals of the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease, which seeks ways to effectively treat or prevent the disease by 2025. Watch for reports on meeting the research milestones under the plan, at IADRP.
I am gratified by the momentum in NIA-supported and conducted research. While the scientific and fiscal challenges are very real, it is still an exciting time to be in aging and Alzheimer’s research. I look forward to working with all of you, moving forward.