Two years back, the US Congress passed the NIH Reform Act of 2006 in an effort to get the NIH to adapt its structure to the new landscape of biomedical research, and to institute more transparency and accountability so that Congress can do its job. Last week, the NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni went to Congress to report on how well his agency has done meeting the new demands of the law. He lays out the challenge in today's interdisciplinary world:
This convergence of science strongly suggests that cross-cutting, multi-disciplinary research, unencumbered by arbitrary structures and narrow approaches, is the critical way of advancing medical research. Cellular mechanisms involving genes, molecules, proteins and other biological components of the human body are the underpinnings of all disease. They must be better understood before discoveries are applied to individual diseases, and with our new knowledge and tools, comprehension will increase... The scientific boundaries between NIH’s Institutes and Centers have become blurred by the interdisciplinary coordination among them. The functional integration required by the Act has helped this process. As you consider NIH issues in the future, I caution you that it would be a grave mistake to go backwards in mandating disease-specific research at a time when barriers need to be torn down, not rebuilt.
This is exactly what scientists need to tell Congress and the public. To effectively use molecular biology and genetics in medicine, we need to understand not just the molecular mechanisms underlying a specific disease, but also more general questions. In our quest to cure cancer and diabetes, we need research that gets at concepts or methods which help us understand what's common to many diseases, and which help us figure out how in general to apply molecular knowledge to clinical practice.