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Skeptics wonder whether Biden’s new science agency is a breakthrough or more bureaucracy


“Most of us didn’t support putting this into NIH for the simple reason that NIH would have done it if it were able to,” said one person outside of government who is familiar with planning, who fears that NIH’s sober culture and leadership will hinder efforts.

Half a dozen individuals both indoors and out outside the administration who were involved in discussions about the plan, POLITICO announced that it was Alternative approaches are discussed, such as relocating ARPA-H far outside Washington to avoid some of the Beltway’s inertia and turf wars. In theory, more autonomy could accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries into drugs and diagnostic tests.

The prevailing view, however, is that the integration of the new agency into NIH’s infrastructure will lay a foundation for it to flourish – and encourage communication to avoid unnecessary duplication. As Congress prepares for the first draft budget hearings, administrators are showing confidence that ARPA-H can develop its own identity anywhere.

“[The established NIH culture is] a legitimate concern and we must do everything we can to prevent this from being the standard, ”NIH Director Francis Collins told POLITICO. Referring to the many components of his agency, he added: “This will not be the 28th institute.”

Biden has long sought to build a broad-based successor to Cancer Moonshot, the $ 1 billion initiative he launched during the Obama administration, hoping to find half the time a decade of cancer research to promote, said three people familiar with his vision. He announced the Moonshot in the same emotional Rose Garden 2016 speech in which he said he would not run for the presidency, citing the pain of losing his son Beau to brain cancer. Within a year, President Donald Trump was in office and the White House’s focus on the massive research initiative dried up.

Making ARPA-H a federal agency would go a long way in ensuring that it can survive such political winds and transfers of power. But the bar is high, especially among budget hawks in Congress and other skeptics who question what a new multibillion-dollar agency can do that others can’t.

“If the only vision is to do advanced translational research … we already have the opportunity within the NIH to do so,” Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) Told Health and Welfare Secretary Xavier Becerra during a hearing on the 2022 budget.

Discussions about a new federal agency to break down research barriers began with a plan called “HARPA,” first presented to President Donald Trump in 2017 by the pancreatic cancer group Suzanne Wright Foundation. However, critics said the original vision was too narrow and a suggestion that the agency track down mentally ill consumers to fend off mass shootings proved too controversial. Collins himself questioned the need for HARPA, said two acquaintances. The NIH director told POLITICO that the Covid-19 pandemic and Biden’s support for ARPA-H have helped change his thinking about what is possible.

The NIH already has a division, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, that focuses on finding practical applications for scientific discovery. Harris and other Republicans argue that the kind of work is better done by the private sector, while the NIH’s mandate is to do basic research – like mapping genes – that can provide a foundation for other studies.

Collins said ARPA-H could fill an important gap between academic research and industry and encourage collaboration between multiple federal agencies. “There is often this gap, this valley of death,” between basic science and practical application, where we “could play a really important role,” he added.

Part of the DARPA model – which critics argue is difficult for NIH to copy – is an organizationally flat structure that gives project managers great autonomy in their work and funding decisions. It’s a model that allows scientists to succeed quickly, but also to fail quickly and then move on to new work, said Ellen Sigal, chairwoman of Friends of Cancer Research, who sits on the NIH Public Representatives Council. Sigal, who was involved in the talks about the new agency, said, “If we’re going to do something bolder like DARPA, we have to have the mentality to know that we’re going to fail.”

Collins recognized the advantages and limitations of the system he was monitoring. “Our NIH research funding process is the best in the world because of the rigorous peer review system, but it’s also a little slow, maybe a little conservative, and it won’t necessarily include the really big transformation projects that would lead to it that someone sends you a grant application. “

But many of these big decisions, from which disease areas to a focus on basic or practical research, will land on the shoulders of the first head of ARPA, initiating a potentially very laborious search for its founding director.

“The first director of this organization will be an incredibly important decision because it will set the course for the future,” said Tara Schwetz, deputy director of biomedical incentives at the White House Science Bureau, who worked with the chief on a plan for the new agency White House Science Officer, Eric Lander. “Culture is really hard to change; It’s really important to get all of these things right from the start because they’re difficult to fix later. “

If Congress approves Biden’s funding requests, ARPA-H will have an annual budget of $ 6.5 billion that can be spent over three years. This timeframe gives the agency some runway to fill its ranks and fund its first key projects. But Schwetz and others admit that it will be important to achieve quick wins in order to gain momentum and build sustained support in Congress. Your agency will also need to prioritize as they advocate cancer, Alzheimer’s, and a range of other diseases to shape their work.

“You have a chance to do this, and it really has to have the necessary ingredients to be successful,” said one person familiar with conversations between government groups and outside advocates. “ARPA-H needs to have an ambitious agenda that allows us to address the major issues we have in a way that people can take and walk with.”

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