National Institutes of Health building

A House subcommittee's budget proposal for the National Institues of Health is much more friendly to the agency than that of the Trump administration.

Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

Biomedical research leaders urge Trump administration to quickly appoint an NIH director

Like other scientific organizations, biomedical research advocates are scrambling to make contact with President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team to weigh in on his science policies and appointments. This week, a science star–studded group that including two former directors of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, released a set of recommendations aimed at making NIH run better and offered advice on choosing an NIH director—ideally within Trump’s first 100 days in office.

“We really wanted to stay clear of the open-hand message that just says, ‘If you give us more money we'll do better,’” says the group’s chair, molecular biologist Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco. “We tried to make recommendations that would be actionable without more money.”

The 27-page report, released on 14 November, comes from 12 science and policy experts, including former NIH directors Harold Varmus and Elias Zerhouni. It urges NIH to shore up basic research and backs suggestions from previous high-level reports that the agency fund more investigators based on their track record and not specific research projects, and rely more heavily on fellowships and training grants rather than research grants to train the new generation.

The group suggests that the new administration review NIH’s structure of 27 institutes and centers mostly based on organs or disease. Varmus pushed for an overhaul years ago and current NIH Director Francis Collins attempted to make changes, but didn’t get far. “We understand the inertia and political forces that make these things very difficult, but this was so important to the committee that we felt it we should raise it again,” Yamamoto says.

One fresh recommendation is for NIH to broaden the expertise of peer review panels so they can better assess transdisciplinary research. The report also suggests a grants program to support NIH’s in-house scientists when they move into academia, a move that would help convert the agency’s intramural program into “an incubator for early stage investigators.”

The most urgent task for the Trump administration is to appoint “a wise and bold Director” within 100 days who should be familiar with NIH, says the group, which began working on its report in July with funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Yamamoto said his team is also working up a list of names to lead NIH and the National Cancer Institute. On a visit to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., yesterday to discuss NIH matters with key members such as Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), who chairs the House of Representatives committee that oversees NIH’s budget, Yamamoto was struck by what he described as “chaos in both parties.” His group also “made contact” with Trump ally Newt Gingrich, who may not be directly involved with science appointments but who Yamamoto said is “hugely influential and very strongly supportive” of NIH.

Yamamoto is also hoping that Ben Carson, the former presidential candidate and retired pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, will be a sympathetic listener. “Colleagues from Hopkins felt he was someone we can talk to,” Yamamoto says about Carson, who has ruled himself out for a cabinet post but expects to remain as an adviser to the president-elect.

There’s no official word from Collins about his plans. But his longtime right-hand adviser Kathy Hudson, NIH deputy director for science, outreach, and policy, who had said before the election that she planned to leave NIH, tweeted this week that she's departing on 16 December to spend time with her family and look for her “next adventure.” Some observers suggest Collins will also be ready to step down soon.

*Update, 17 November, 8:47 a.m.: The article has been been updated to clarify that Kathy Hudson had discussed her plans to leave the National Institutes of Health before the election.