NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Right Pill for Biomedical Research Agency

February 12, 2003

Members of both political parties regularly hail the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as the "crown jewel" of the federal government. Indeed, the NIH, which is the federal focal point of biomedical research in the United States, has often been celebrated as a model of legislative stewardship. Thanks to the bipartisan support it has received, the NIH has expanded greatly in recent years to become the largest source of federal funds for scientific research next to the Defense Department.

But a closer look at the NIH reveals a far less rosy picture:

  • As the NIH has grown, so has its bureaucracy -- currently, the NIH comprises 27 different institutes and centers, all loosely grouped around a central director's office.
  • There's a tremendous amount of inefficiency in that each institute has to have its own administrative apparatus.
  • The added administrative costs associated with maintaining so many institutes diverts funds away from research, which counteracts the impact of Congress's recent budget increases.

Then there are the logistical headaches of trying to integrate so many units.

  • The NIH lacks sufficient resources to link the e-mail addresses and research databases of its many institutes, a shortcoming that makes it difficult for scientists to collaborate and share data.
  • The NIH director, who is charged with effectively overseeing and coordinating the individual agencies, lacks the power, staff and funding to do so.

This lack of cohesion undermines initiatives that require cooperation between institutes. So what's to be done? For starters, a certain measure of consolidation is necessary.

  • Some experts have advocated clustering NIH agencies around broad scientific fields.
  • Limits should also be placed on the creation of new agencies.
  • Rather than add bureaucracy, Congress should use future budget increases to strengthen the more derelict sectors of the NIH.

Source: Alex Stone, "Overtreated: Has Congress Wrecked the NIH?" New Republic, February 10, 2003.


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