AAI President's Message

 

Paul M. Allen, Ph.D. (AAI President, 2005-06)

I am honored and excited about being the AAI president. As an organization, AAI is in great shape, due to the dedicated efforts of the members and staff. I thank everybody for their contributions and for helping our professional society continue to thrive. AAI represents you and your interests in Washington and there are several issues that are important to us all and will be the focus of my tenure as AAI president.

The first area involves launching the careers of the next generation of scientists. I would like to continue the efforts of my predecessors in strongly supporting the development of young scientists, especially women. I am concerned with the aging of the RO1 pool and feel that more work needs to be done to help postdocs choose and succeed in their first independent jobs, be they in academics, government, or industry. We have made great strides in increasing the postdoctoral fellowship stipends, but we still seem to be losing too many scientists at the next step in their careers. This issue is obviously complex and there is no easy solution. I strongly support the efforts of one of my predecessors, Laurie Glimcher, who initiated the establishment of the Primary Caregiver Technical Assistance Supplements (PCTAS) program within the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). We need to continue to support this outstanding program and develop new and innovative other ones that will ensure the success of the next generation of immunologists.

Another important issue concerns the reauthorization of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Efforts afoot on Capitol Hill could have a dramatic – and potentially very damaging – effect on NIH. While many of us already feel the budget squeeze that has increased over the last few years – in part from the end of the NIH budget doubling and in part from a change in national spending priorities – a bigger threat looms in the form of legislation to "reauthorize" the NIH. Reauthorization legislation is Congress's opportunity to change the way an agency or program is organized or runs; NIH has not been "reauthorized" since 1993. A draft bill that has been circulated by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-6th,TX), would give the NIH director unprecedented control over the budget, program priorities, and scientific direction of NIH and each of its individual institutes and centers. In so doing, it would give vastly increased power to a political appointee (the director), who is almost always a short-term leader, and strip important authority away from the individual institute and center directors, who are government employees (non-political) and often long-term NIH leaders (for example, Dr. Anthony Fauci has been Director of NIAID since 1984). While Chairman Barton's draft bill is a "discussion draft" (which presumably will be modified), AAI is immensely concerned that this purported effort to give the NIH director more authority to ensure accountability and transparency will instead make the NIH more political, more centralized and bureaucratic, and less responsive to the best science (since the individual institute directors are closer to both the science and the scientists in their respective areas of expertise). We also believe that this discussion draft – if enacted into law – would result in far fewer RO1s and more "big science" (selected primarily by the NIH director).

Finally, we are deeply concerned that this draft legislation, by eviscerating the power of the individual institute and center directors, would result in the departure of many NIH leaders (including institute directors) and would make recruiting quality new ones all but impossible. AAI is working to ensure that modifications are made which, among other things, balance the need of the NIH director to manage and be accountable for the agency against NIH's longstanding and successful decentralized leadership structure. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that any changes Congress makes will improve, and not damage, NIH and its interaction with working scientists. The reauthorization legislation is but one challenge that we, as a community, face this year: others include the revision of the overly strict NIH "conflict of interest" rules; the continuing diversion by NIH of research funds into a duplicative and incomplete repository of unfinished scientific manuscripts (the so-called "Enhanced Access to Scientific Publications" plan); and as always, the need for increased federal funding for biomedical research.

I encourage you to join AAI in our important work this year. It is for you, and through your support, that we strive to make the research environment one in which you and your work can flourish. I hope to see you all in Boston in May 2006 (May 12- 16) for "IMMUNOLOGY 2006™", AAI's stand-alone meeting. This is the first time AAI will meet in Boston and it should be a wonderful meeting both scientifically and socially.