Senate panel blocks NIH from revising translational research awards

Congress has questioned how NIH is managing its Clinical and Translational Science Awards, which support research such as this aging study at the University of Kansas.

A congressional spending panel has backed scientists running a $516 million network of bench-to-bedside research centers in their fight with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, over how it manages the network. It’s the latest step in a long-running tug-of-war over the direction of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSAs) program.

The CTSAs were created in 2006 by then–NIH Director Elias Zerhouni as part of his larger push to turn lab findings into treatments. In 2012 they became the lion’s share of the new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at NIH. Since then, CTSA investigators have clashed repeatedly with NCATS Director Chris Austin.

Austin began adding a clinical trials innovation network and other elements to the CTSA program, an expansion that CTSA investigators feared would come at the expense of their centers’ budgets. Austin has also begun trimming the length of renewed awards, from 5 to 4 years, for centers that don’t do as well in review. Rumors earlier this year that NCATS wanted to eventually cut funding for the CTSA program, from about 90% to 50% of the overall NCATS budget, heightened tensions. (NCATS Deputy Director Pamela McInnes told ScienceInsider that no such plans exist.)

In recent years the number of active CTSAs, now called hubs, has hovered between 57 and 62, with most awards ranging between $3 million and $10 million a year. The money supports training programs, regulatory expertise, and other resources needed to conduct translational research. “The 64 [current and past] CTSA hubs include the nation’s most experienced and creative senior investigators, and very large investments and commitments from their host institutions,” explains Harry Selker, leader of the CTSAs at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and chair of the Clinical Research Forum, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that represents the CTSAs.

CTSA leaders took their concerns to influential members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, including the chair of the panel that funds NIH, Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), and another senior appropriator, Senator Richard Shelby (R–AL). Missouri and Alabama both host CTSAs, which are located in more than half the states.

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