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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? CHAPTER 4 SOLVING ADMINISTRATIVE PROBLEMS As part of its mandate for this study, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) was asked to review a broad spectrum of organizational strategies that might help alleviate problems the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was experiencing in recruiting and retaining scientists. In Chapter 3, the committee evaluated the nature and magnitude of these problems. This chapter begins with an exploration of a variety of organizational models to assess whether reorganization would provide an expeditious and comprehensive solution to problems, and, if so, whether possible new problems introduced by structural change might outweigh the benefits. Remedies that do not entail structural change are also examined. The chapter concludes with recommendations, which the committee believes are feasible to implement—both from a political and a logistical standpoint. Several of the organizational reforms reviewed by the committee could be classed under the general heading of privatization. In a general sense, privatization refers to the transfer of some activity from the public to the private sector. There are many different ways such a transfer could take place, and it need not involve any reduction of government financial commitments to the activity involved. Indeed, the committee analysis of privatization focused on it as a means of revitalizing the program, rather than diminishing government responsibility and expenditures for biomedical research. Every nation decides for itself which activities are most effectively pursued in the private sector, which are pursued in the public sector, and which should be pursued jointly. A review of contemporary arrangements in modern industrial nations reveals that, although there is a marked trend toward greater reliance on private markets, various nations have made quite different decisions in this respect. Even among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, there are very marked differences in the nature and importance of activities assigned to the public sector. It is important not to confuse the scope of public sector activities with the scope of government responsibility—financial or otherwise. A government can easily retain financial responsibility for certain activities, but arrange for these activities to be carried out in the private sector. This can be accomplished, for example, by the issuance of vouchers or by contracting out. Government regulation of private sector activities is another mechanism through which the scope of government responsibility extends beyond the scope of public sector activity. User fees (e.g., highway tolls, drilling rights), on the other hand, represent a mechanism whereby private markets are used to put constraints on activities being carried out in the public sector. Thus, privatization encompasses large numbers of possible decisions regarding how a society will choose the appropriate vehicles to serve its interest at a particular time.
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? Whatever the word privatization means in the context of the NIH intramural program, it has galvanized interest in the nature of the program, its accomplishments under existing arrangements, and the challenge it faces in defining its future role, maintaining its excellence, or both. Reactions to the proposal have been strong and have ranged from incredulity and bemusement, to fear, and to thoughtful analysis of future options. The strength of the reaction and the stridency of some of the rhetoric indicate an appreciation for the achievements of the intramural program and a determination to preserve this element of the nation’s biomedical research. The committee found some forms of privatization clearly inappropriate for the intramural program because, given the nature of its product, it cannot generate adequate revenues through user fees or the sale of services to individuals. Nor does NIH have physical assets that anyone in the for-profit sector would be likely to buy and maintain as a basic biomedical research program. Other forms of privatization were in the realm of feasibility and worth considering as options. They are discussed in this chapter. The Policy Background In recent years, a large number of agencies have encountered difficulties in carrying out their programs within the context of laws, budgetary practices, personnel systems, procurement regulations, and departmental restraints. Among the organizations that have found the prevailing statutory and regulatory controls most confining are those engaged in scientific, technical, and research programs. Most of the laws and regulations relating to the administration of federal agencies were originally designed to foster efficiency, accountability, integrity, consistency, and equity among employees. Their cumulative effect, however, according to a study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), has been to impede innovative management and to drive up the cost of government, centralized systems and controls were found to jeopardize the effective execution of basic programs and to frustrate the best efforts of professional managers and employees (NAPA, 1983). It might be desirable to resolve government-wide needs with across-the-board solutions, but individual agencies unable to wait for help through such general reforms have often sought relief through measures applicable only to themselves. Since World War II, Congress, as well as the Executive Branch, have believed that some unique or strongly supported program should be freed from various constraints that apply to traditional agencies. Generally, agencies have been successful in securing enhanced discretion in administrative matters only when Congress is convinced that circumstances warrant their receiving treatment denied other agencies or programs.
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? Very recently, serious consideration has been given to improving the structure and administrative setting for such federal activities as air traffic control, uranium enrichment, technical information services, the national space effort, and the Tennessee Valley Authority programs. Legislation dealing with several of these activities is pending in Congress. With this active reconsideration of government functions and organizational reform, it is not surprising that biomedical research, and NIH in particular, has been subject to speculation. The committee explored a variety of organizational forms to determine whether they would provide the flexibility needed to overcome the problems identified in the previous chapter. The results of the committee’s inquiry, aided by NAPA, are summarized in the following sections (Dean and Seidman, 1988). The chapter later proceeds to a discussion of measures to solve discrete administrative problems, citing cases in which agencies have been authorized to adopt these remedies. Models for Organizational Reform An Independent Agency It has been suggested that the intramural research program, or alternatively the whole of NIH, be reorganized as an independent agency on the model of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Establishment of independent agencies is often advocated by powerful, well organized constituency groups to (1) enhance program status and visibility, (2) improve the position of programs in the competition for financial and other resources, (3) facilitate access to key decision makers in the Executive Branch and the Congress, (4) protect the agency’s resources from claims by other agencies within the department, and (5) maximize responsiveness to constituency interests. In addition, the director of an independent agency is likely to have Executive Level II status. Because the Director of NIH is the head of an agency in the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), his position cannot exceed Executive Level IV. Therefore, it is now difficult to accord the Director of NIH the necessary authority and status needed to act effectively as the key spokesperson for biomedical research interests worldwide. Finding ways to enhance the influence of the person who sits atop the $6 billion NIH enterprise is severely limited as long as NIH remains an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The committee considered two ways independent agency status might be conferred upon NIH: separating the whole of the agency from DHHS; or separating only the intramural program, leaving the other NIH activities in DHHS. A recommendation to remove NIH completely from DHHS would necessitate a thorough examination of the advantages and disadvantages of such an action for all parts of NIH and DHHS itself. This was beyond the
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? committee’s charge, but even a cursory exploration of this option suggests some serious negative consequences that might override the benefits described above. An agency that has a pure research mission, and is also seen as providing social benefits, is likely to find a more generous Congress. NIH leadership has skillfully capitalized on the connection between biomedical research and the conquest of disease. This identification is reinforced by its location in the PHS and DHHS. The committee cannot be certain that separation of NIH would damage its ability to maintain this identification. However, science agencies, whose chief constituency is the science community have a more difficult task in trying to convince lawmakers and the public of the relationship of their basic research to social benefit. They have not had the extraordinary and prolonged budgetary success of NIH (Lambright, 1976; Dean and Seidman, 1988). The committee believes an action that can jeopardize the support that has sustained the NIH budget can only be justified if a good case can be made for the existence of a crisis or the overwhelming advantages of change. The committee’s investigation, which was limited by its charge, found that neither of these conditions exist. As the previous chapter indicates, the problems that need to be addressed are serious but not of crisis proportions. Moreover, independent agency status would not inherently solve the specific problems. There is no reason to believe that the intramural program, as an independent agency, would be accorded greater flexibility in hiring and compensating personnel and conducting its operations than under the current structure. NSF furnishes an example. A recent position paper prepared by the NSF Division of Personnel Management complains of the growing problem in attracting high caliber scientists and engineers both for rotational positions (temporary personnel on leave from the private sector) and permanent staff. Non-competitive salary was one of the chief reasons cited for recruitment and retention problems. NSF also faces limitations in being able to pay non-salary elements, such as retirement. It is also facing new restrictions imposed by Congress in salary limitations for IPA’s (employees on loan from institutions outside the government through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act); and on arrangements where industry shares the cost of personnel on loan to NSF (NSF, 1988). As now structured, NIH enjoys higher status and visibility, greater freedom in hiring and setting the conditions of work and compensation of its employees, and more generous budgetary support than the independent NSF. In addition, some would argue that there is value in being part of a department that has a voice in the President’s cabinet, a type of access independent agencies do not have. The idea of constituting the intramural research program on its own as an independent agency could pose a number of practical problems. It would require duplicating the administrative functions it now shares with the extramural program. It would be a more visible competitor for funds with the non-federal health research
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? community. Finally, aside from the benefits lost from having the intramural and extramural programs exist side by side, a considerable effort would be required to extract intramural activities from institutes such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI), where the two programs are tightly integrated. In sum, the committee could examine the effects of organizational change only on the intramural program, not on NIH as a whole, or the complete set of implications of withdrawing NIH from DHHS. It may well be that a study with a broader scope would conclude that forming NIH as an independent agency would be beneficial. But, given the potential of unexplored risks, and the existence of similar personnel problems at NIH and NSF, the committee did not think the change was worth the risk if there are less radical options available. A Federally-supported, Contractor-operated Research Center The Departments of Energy, Defense, and Health and Human Services, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Science Foundation, currently sponsor approximately 35 federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs). Federal funding of such centers exceeds $4 billion a year. FFRDCs have been used to (1) conduct applied research or experimental tasks; (2) furnish systems engineering and technical management services; (3) provide operations research and analytical services; and (4) conduct social research and demonstrations. FFRDCs are rarely utilized to conduct pure research, and most of their tasks are done at the request of the sponsoring agency. FFRDCs may be managed and operated by independent, nonprofit corporations such as the Rand and Aerospace corporations, which were organized at the instigation of the sponsoring agencies; or by universities, consortia of universities; or by industrial firms under so-called GOCO contracts (government-owned contractor-operated). The Office of Federal Procurement Policy has issued regulations governing the use of FFRDCs, which provide among other things: that the sponsoring agency requests the research and monitors results. that the primary government sponsor must approve any work done for a government agency other than the sponsoring agency. that the primary sponsor undertakes the responsibility to assure reasonable continuity in level of support. that the center conducts its business in a responsible manner befitting its special relationship to the government, to operate in the public interest free from
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? organizational conflict of interest, and to disclose its affairs to the primary sponsor (Office of Federal Procurement Policy/1984). Many research centers have established an environment to attract competent scientists. They have designed personnel and administrative systems that are better adapted to their missions than those generally applicable to federal agencies and employees. Nonetheless, with the exception of principal officers, most salaries are roughly equivalent to those provided by the current civil service salary structure. A recent NAPA study indicated the following salary ranges: program directors, $65,000 to $80,000; senior staff, $50,000 to $75,000; and research staff, $35,000 to $55,000 (Dean and Seidman, 1988). FFRDCs recognize that if they depart too much from the civil service pay structure, they run the risk of having pay limitations imposed either by the sponsoring agency, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), or the Congress. Flexibility must be employed with discretion and not abused. As an FFRDC, NIH would have to engage primarily in directed research. All FFRDC contracts specify some funds or some percentage of effort that may be utilized for self-initiated research, but this generally constitutes less than 20 percent of the total program. DHHS would need to maintain a strong internal capability to direct and monitor the research program. The division of responsibility between the contracting agency and the center, and between governmental employees and contract employees, would likely cause frictions and result in serious conflicts. Use of the FFRDC mechanism could reduce DHHS’s ability to shift program direction and to utilize effectively its available personnel resources. Center employees are not federal employees and, consequently, cannot be shifted to other tasks within NIH. Flexibility in conducting the intramural research programs might be obtained at the cost of loss of flexibility elsewhere. It is also to be remembered that government contractors are subject to their own body of “red tape.” Contractors complain about the increasing number and complexity of regulatory and statutory requirements. Attempts by universities to apply their own administrative regulations to the FFRDCs managed by them also has generated conflicts and posed problems. A Government Research Institute In its 1962 report to the President on Government Contracting for Research and Development, the Bureau of the Budget recommended that consideration be given to the establishment of a new type of agency, to be called a Government Research Institute (GRI) (Bureau of the Budget, 1962). This would provide for the establishment, within the government, of an agency with a suitable research environment, and provision of personnel and administrative practices adapted to its unique mission. The objective was to achieve in the administration of certain research and development
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? programs necessary flexibility, while maintaining appropriate accountability. The Comptroller General in 1969 urged that a proposal for a GRI again be considered, but to date none has been established. The National Institute of Education (NIE), established by Congress, was given some, but not all, of the attributes envisioned for a GRI. For example, the institute director was given authority to appoint technical or professional employees as were deemed necessary to carry out the institute’s function without regard to the civil service laws and the Classification Act. The director also had authority to establish and maintain such stipends and allowances as were necessary to procure the assistance of highly qualified research fellows (NIE, 1972). Regrettably, the 20 percent of the staff exempted from the civil service were treated as “political appointments” when administrations changed. The NIE was disbanded in the 1980s. NIH already possesses most of the attributes of a GRI. If Congress were to enact legislation authorizing NIH to establish a personnel system with the flexibility appropriate for a research institution, NIH would be, both in name and in fact, the equivalent of a GRI. A Government Corporation NIH does not meet the criteria to be a government corporation. It is neither revenue producing nor potentially self-sustaining; it does not sell commercial services to the public. Corporate flexibility is dependent on the corporations ability to finance its operations from revenues and borrowings. Agencies that are designated as corporations, but are financed by appropriations, such as the Legal Services Corporation, face the same problems as any other agency and may have even less flexibility. For example, GS-18 is the salary cap for the Legal Services Corporation. Government corporations are subject to the civil service laws and regulations in their chartering legislation. The systems of business-type budgeting and commercial auditing prescribed by the Government Corporation Control Act are unsuited to programs that are not intended to be self-financing. The chapter thus far has discussed some forms of private organization, some forms of government organization that have elements of the private sector, and some purely public models. The committee rejects these as unsuitable for NIH for the following major reasons: NIH does not generate substantial revenues (government corporation, all forms of privatization that are self-sustaining). the distinctive contribution of the intramural program would be lost (sale of assets, FFRDCs). the administrative upheaval would be very costly.
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? there is no reason to believe that any of these models would be any more likely to confer the flexibility that NIH could secure in its present form (independent agency). The President’s Commission on Privatization, which made recommendations on such public functions as housing, education, medicare, prisons, and air traffic control, refrained from making any recommendations with respect to NIH. This was stated to be because of the “technical complexity” of the issues involved, a recognition of the difficulty and sensitivity of devising ways to transfer the intramural program activities to the private sector (Report of the President’s Commission on Privatization, 1988). To some extent, we could gain the advantages of privatization by removing some of the unnecessary and inefficient regulations under which NIH is currently managed. There is no reason why NIH could not benefit from the removal of unproductive constraints that prevent it from competing for scientific talent with the private sector and from operating more efficiently. Addressing Problems that Exist Under the Present Organization To address the most serious problems identified in the previous chapter, the committee examined a variety of solutions that other government agencies facing similar difficulties have adopted without undergoing major reorganizational upheaval. These agencies have established precedents from which the committee believes NIH might benefit. No one approach fully suits the special circumstances of NIH. Therefore, the committee selected features of different models, relying most heavily on a recent National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) demonstration and the statutory authority of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS). The committee’s major purpose was to design a strategy that would provide NIH with the necessary tools to compete in highly competitive labor markets. To accomplish this, personnel reforms should be characterized by the following: a means of exceeding the federal salary cap when necessary to compete for some types of personnel; to reward those who undertake added administrative responsibilities, such as the scientific directors; and to avoid excessive wage compression, i.e., bunching of salaries around the federal civil service cap of $72,500 for GS-level employees; a portable system of retirement, so that university and industry personnel would not be disadvantaged by spending part of their career at NIH;
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? a system that allows those in the commissioned corps to enroll without a major penalty in loss of benefits accrued. the ability to hire personnel quickly, without bureaucratic delays; a system that links performance to pay in ways that fit the needs of a scientific organization; substitution of a budgetary limitation on payroll for full time equivalent (FTE) ceilings. National Institute of Standards and Technology Although it had a very low turnover rate, below 5 percent, the NIST1 in the Department of Commerce was concerned about its ability to attract the quality of professional and technical staff it needed for the future. Like other federal agencies, NIST was frustrated by the hiring constraints, pay structures, and staffing limitations imposed by the civil service system. NIST closely examined a personnel demonstration at the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, a project that experimented with simplified position classification, a new pay for performance system, and greater flexibility in setting salaries. In 1987, NIST obtained a congressional mandate to undertake its own five-year demonstration covering most of its 3,000 employees. A major feature of the demonstration is the simplified NIST classification system illustrated in Figure 4-1. Similar occupations are grouped together in career paths and pay bands that replace civil service grades. The chief advantage of such a system is greater flexibility and ease for line managers in classifying jobs and rewarding performance. For example, employees who in the past might have been frozen at the top step of a grade will now have greater potential for movement upward in the much broader pay bands. Under such a scheme, NIH could devise an analogous system, such as the one proposed in its 1983 scientific faculty proposal, whereby the scientific staff could be organized in pay bands that correspond to university faculty rank. Another advantage of the NIST system is streamlined hiring authority. Where once it required 3 months to a year to employ a scientist because of the procedural interplay with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), such personnel as scientists, engineers, and others in shortage occupations can now be added to the payroll within a few weeks. Moreover, a recruitment bonus of up to $10,000 may be used to attract particularly promising candidates. For occupations not deemed to be in short supply, an agency-based staffing process allows supervisors to advertise positions and to hire non-government candidates without OPM approval. 1 Formerly the National Bureau of Standards.
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? FIGURE 4-1
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? NIST has also created various mechanisms through its pay administration system to retain staff. Three types of pay increases are possible. First, all employees who receive at a minimum a fully successful performance rating are eligible for a pay increase based on a regular assessment of the comparability between NIST positions and similar private sector positions. Second, depending on the level of performance, an employee can expect a performance pay increase, the size of which is determined by the current salary, career path, and the pay band salary range. For example, a scientist in a pay band equivalent to GS 13–14 can merit an 8–10 percent pay hike with an outstanding rating, but only a 2 percent with a fully satisfactory rating. Third, employees are also eligible for performance bonuses of up to $10,000 per annum. Further adding to NIST’s arsenal for retaining staff is a special retention bonus of up to $10,000, as well as an option to offer a sabbatical after 7 years of federal service. Helping to soften the effects of wage compression and the reluctance of scientists to accept administrative burdens, there is a 6-percent-of-base-pay differential for supervisory positions. Many of these facets of the NIST demonstration would prove useful for addressing some of the problems faced by NIH with its inflexible personnel system. There are, however, a number of features absent from the demonstration. The NIST model has no provision for exceeding the total monetary compensation of Executive Level I (currently $99,500), which NIH needs to compete in the physician labor market. Members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) who most often impinge on this cap were excluded from the NIST demonstration. Also, there is no provision for portability of retirement benefits as a means of attracting faculty from universities. An aspect of the NIST demonstration that NIH might wish to alter is the manner in which comparability with the private sector is determined. The NIST Director is authorized to adjust the ranges of pay bands based on surveys of total compensation paid to persons in positions in private sector firms and universities that are similar in levels of work and responsibility. The adjustments are made, however, not on comparability across specific occupations, but on the basis of the total market basket of NIST employees (P.L. 99-574, 1987). For example, in a recent survey, the salaries of NIST electrical engineers were found to lag approximately 12 percent behind the private sector, while the average for all employees lagged about 6 percent behind. NIH might choose to have more flexibility to compete in selected labor markets by adjusting salaries on an occupation-specific basis. As a practical matter, the ability to perform accurate comparisons of total compensation, taking into account the value of benefit packages that include such components as vacation and sick leave, is limited and costly. NIST has yet to engage in such comparisons. Furthermore, the ability to alter current federal benefits, such as health insurance and leave, by means of demonstrations is highly proscribed by statute, although NIST has the option to add new benefits in the future if it so desires.
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? NIH already has some experience with using a foundation to accomplish special purposes with the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences (FAES). Incorporated in 1959, the FAES, with total assets of $14 million “fosters and encourages scientific research and education, and facilitates communication among scientists by whatever means may be practical.” To accomplish its educational mission, FAES sponsors courses for NIH scientific staff, continuing medical education, cultural programs, and fellowship and grant management (FAES Annual Report for FY ended May 31, 1987). In addition, private foundations can provide funds for specific studies at NIH. For example: One foundation has funded diabetes studies at NIDDK. A foreign government, wanting NIH to conduct research in a particular area, donated several thousand dollars to a foundation that used funds to support such a study (fellowships, salaries, etc.). A pharmaceutical company donated money to FAES, which will administer NIH postdoctoral fellowships (NIH staff interviews, 1988). Several advantages of congressionally chartered foundations cannot be obtained by an agency from gift authority alone. Foundations can solicit funds openly and invest them. They allow for systematic, fair, and accountable use of funds from donors. Finally, creative administration can accomplish some objectives (travel to overseas meetings for scientists, for example) free of many of the usual bureaucratic and political constraints often faced when government procedures must be followed. Although USUHS benefits greatly from special authorities, such as the Jackson Foundation, flexibility in offering retirement systems such as TIAA-CREF, and its unique ability to pay salaries above Executive Level I, the agency is not immune from some of the same problems that many government agencies face. For example, USUHS officials acknowledge difficulties and delays in the area of space and procurement. Also, for many of its general schedule employees at the technical and support level, the same personnel strictures with which NIH contends are present. Senior Biomedical Research Service Proposal NIH management, increasingly concerned over disparities between what it can pay and compensation offered by private and nonprofit institutions, made an attempt at improvement with its proposal for a Senior Biomedical Research Service (SBRS) consisting of the following features:
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? The SBRS would be established in the excepted (non-competitive) service. The Secretary of DHHS would appoint its members and determine their compensation. To be considered for appointment, an individual would have a doctoral-level degree in an appropriate field and meet the minimal qualification standards for GS-15. The proposed bill provides that basic pay for members of the SBRS would range from GS-15, Step 1, to the rate of pay for Executive Level IV. Supplemental pay would be authorized for members with significant administrative responsibility and/or significant scientific accomplishments. The total compensation ceiling could not exceed 110 percent of the rate of pay for Executive Level I. The proposal also provides that for a few scientists (not more than 3 percent of the members of SBRS) the supplemental pay may be greater, with a total ceiling (currently $164,175) roughly comparable to the mean compensation (base salary plus supplement) of chairmen of internal medicine departments in medical schools. Limitations on accumulation of annual leave would be removed for members. SBRS members recruited from universities would be able to continue their membership in TIAA/CREF. Transfers would be facilitated between the Commissioned Corps of the PHS and the SBRS. As the original NIH proposal made its way through DHHS and the Senate in the form of S. 2222, the NIH reauthorization bill of 1988, the provision allowing 3 percent of the SBRS members to earn almost $165,000 was eliminated (S. 2222, 1988). Improving the NIH Managerial Environment There is no single, simple organizational solution to the problems that now confront NIH. The belief that organizational independence, or conversion to a government corporation, or some form of privatization, would automatically provide exemptions from restrictive laws and regulations is a misconception. Regardless of form, agencies possess only that degree of operating and financial flexibility specifically provided by federal law and regulations and their enabling statutes.
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? Congress may be disposed to grant greater freedom to some types of organizations than to others, but there is no certainty that it will do so in any given situation. In some cases, reorganization may result in merely trading one set of problems for another equally irksome. Whatever organizational alternative may be proposed, exemptions from laws and regulations generally applicable to federal employees and agencies must be justified by convincing evidence demonstrating the need for special treatment. The committee took special care in considering structural options for NIH. First, it recognized that it was dealing with a large, complex agency charged with extremely vital and politically popular programs. Second, there are important extramural/intramural interrelationships—especially NCI, which represents about one third of the intramural budget. Third, NIH is a highly successful research enterprise and enjoys international prestige. Fourth, NIH already has a degree of budgetary support and an administrative setting that has freed it from many of the obstacles that frustrate managers in less favored agencies. Thus, in developing a strategy for the NIH of the future, the committee is concerned with anticipating problems and potential needs of a strong resource, rather than with bolstering a disorganized or faltering agency. This means that any proposed change should help ensure that an effective and highly regarded agency remains so, and continues to move forward in attacking the nation’s gravest medical challenges. The committee’s intent is to seek cost-effective alternatives that address real needs, and those clearly emerging, and to do so with the least feasible disruption of a highly successful agency. Conclusions and Recommendations The committee believes that an amalgam of the authorities represented by the NIST demonstration, the USUHS, and the Senior Biomedical Research Services proposal is needed to provide flexibility in NIH personnel administration. The committee emphasizes that its analysis of NIH problems does not support the need for a major shift in all NIH salaries to parity with academia or industry. What the committee is seeking is a mix of appropriate tools for NIH management to operate in highly competitive labor markets at all levels of personnel. These tools include a personnel demonstration project, a foundation, and relief from personnel ceilings. Competing for Personnel The committee recommends that Congress authorize NIH to develop and implement a personnel demonstration project tailored to overcome the deficiencies of the current system. The committee suggests that the project should feature:
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? simplified hiring, classification, and pay administration authority similar to the demonstration now being conducted by the NIST; an occupation-specific pay standard based on surveys of market comparability; the ability to exceed the federal pay ceiling in justifiable circumstances; portability of retirement benefits between non-federal employment and NIH. a limit on personal services costs, in lieu of employment ceilings, as a way of controlling personnel costs. The committee agrees with NAPA that the imposition of ceilings on numbers of personnel makes little management sense in most agencies. Such ceilings are especially damaging when they force agencies into inappropriate substitution of personnel (e.g., postdoctorates for technicians, the contracting of functions better performed in-house), and otherwise prevent the most efficient response to demands generated by an agency’s mission. The NIH budget should be the controlling factor in expenditures. If oversight of personnel management is needed, it can best be achieved by review of NIH’s spending on personal services, which includes contracts as well as employees. Any legislation designed to enhance the effective utilization of the NIH intramural research staff should exclude NIH from administratively imposed limits on numbers of employees. Such a provision is to be found in H.R. 4417, reported by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, to establish a National Technical Information Corporation. The Indian Health Service has been exempted from these limits. Although the demonstration authority would permit NIH to exceed the federal salary ceiling, the committee recognizes that this flexibility should be used with restraint, because of political sensitivities, and to avoid morale problems that would be caused by the recruitment of career scientists at salary rates substantially in excess of those of current employees. The committee believes that NIH ought to be able to attract a limited number of the most outstanding, established scientists, whose presence would inject new intellectual stimulation to the program. Scientists of this stature command salaries and resources beyond the level that NIH is likely to match without a program designed to avoid political and morale problems. The committee believes that creating a small number of time-limited, exceptional appointments would avoid such problems. Creating endowed chairs outside the federal civil service system would enable NIH to provide competitive salaries substantially higher than the federal civil service ceiling, and to provide other resources such as
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? equipment, travel expenses, and technical support staff. To accomplish this, the committee recommends that Congress charter a foundation to permit the private support of up to ten endowed chairs for distinguished investigators. The creation of a foundation similar to those established for USUHS and the National Park Service, would permit funds to be raised from the private sector. However, the committee intends that the foundation’s receipt of private funds be modest, so as not to significantly channel funds away from other biomedical research endeavors. For this reason, the committee suggests that Congress consider a fund-matching, or other cost-sharing, provision. Furthermore, this would show that the federal government is not abrogating responsibility for staffing one of its own laboratories. Appropriate mechanisms would have to be put in place to prevent any appearance of conflict of interest on the part of those contributing to the endowment of such chairs. Improving Management and Quality Control The major objective of this chapter, thus far, has been to reaffirm the present organizational structure and location of NIH and its intramural program within the federal system. In doing so, we have suggested a variety of authorities to strengthen the hard of NIH management in coping with endemic administrative problems. The committee concluded that its responsibilities are not adequately discharged without addressing long-standing concerns about the Director’s lack of flexibility to manage the affairs of NIH for which he bears broad responsibility. The committee also believes that further progress can be made in allowing the review process to better serve the resource allocation decisions facing scientific directors. Chapter 3, in exploring problems associated with administrative layering within DHHS, describes the limited freedom of the Director to make relatively simple management decisions on such matters as space, foreign travel, and promotions and to have the discretion to adjust the resources of NIH to accomplish purposes that do not fall in the purview of any single institute. Maintaining an Administratively Efficient NIH in the PHS In a background paper prepared for the committee, NIH argued that: The barriers to the continued scientific excellence of the NIH intramural research program are administrative in nature, created to govern the expenditure of public funds, not biomedical research. They are imposed upon the intramural program through successive organizational layers, and managed, interpreted, and implemented by staffs that are constantly changing and far removed from the dynamics of biomedical research. They are affecting
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? visibly the critical mass of talent assembled in the intramural program and its underlying research infrastructure. The paper concludes that the two most satisfactory solutions are (1) to bring incremental changes in the status quo, or (2) to establish the total NIH as a free-standing entity within the federal government. The paper states that “some change is clearly desirable to permit the intramural program and the NIH greater flexibility in dealing with bureaucratic controls that limit biomedical research progress” (NIH, 1988). The committee seriously considered the arguments put forth by NIH, and concluded that problem-specific change was the most appropriate solution. As discussed earlier in this chapter, independent agencystatus is no guarantee of freedom from bureaucratic constraints, and puts at risk the favorable position that NIH holds with Congress in support of its activities. The committee also seriously considered whether NIH would function more effectively as a health agency reporting directly to the Secretary of DHHS. It felt that the advantages to NIH of being part of a strong PHS outweigh the disadvantages. Among these advantages is that strong Assistant Secretaries function both as advocates for NIH, including its intramural program, and as buffers against excessive political pressures from Congress and the Administration. In addition, maintaining existing elements of the PHS under the Assistant Secretary for Health strengthens capacities for coordinated approaches to public health policy issues. Consistent with IOM’s 1984 report on the organizational structure of NIH, the committee does not wish to see biomedical research separated from those agencies that deal with the preventive and service delivery aspects of health. Not only did the committee believe that the advantages to NIH of being part of the PHS outweigh the disadvantages, it also was not convinced that problems of FTE ceilings, travel limits, control of procurement, and space management are a result of NIH’s subordinate location. All of these problems, with the exception of travel ceilings, originate outside of DHHS in laws and regulations enforced by agencies such as the OMB and the General Services Administration. The committee found that, although these problems were exacerbated by the administrative layering within DHHS, they were not sufficiently serious to warrant removal of NIH fromeither DHHS or the PHS. Moreover, the scope of this study could not include an assessment of the impact of such action on the other health components of DHHS or on the NIH extramural program. Nonetheless, there are serious limitations that weaken the management capabilities of the Director of NIH. The committee believes that efforts to micromanage NIH from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health are counterproductive and reduce the efficiency of NIH in carrying out its
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? mission. The committee recommends that the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services delegate to the Director of NIH the authority to make decisions on administrative matters without being subject to review by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. Assistant Secretaries for Health have not always taken responsibility for detailed administrative oversight for NIH. From the perspective of this examination of the intramural program, broad policy guidance and interagency coordination are more valuable activities than administrative functions that could be performed more efficiently if NIH were given greater latitude in decision making. Director’s Discretionary Fund NIH is a confederation of institutes, each having a high degree of autonomy. As such, it cannot always respond well to new issues, emergencies, or research opportunities that do not clearly fall within the scope of one institute. In these circumstances, the Director needs the resources to initiate intramural activities across institute lines, without imposing on the independence of the institutes. The committee recommends that Congress appropriate annually to the Director of NIH an amount no less than $25 million to be used to address emerging issues and special inter-institute research opportunities. Recognizing the need for a response to “complex biomedical emergencies,” in 1985 Congress authorized the Secretary of DHHS to allow the Director of NIH to expedite grant review, and increase by up to 50 percent grants or contracts that support research relevant to an identified emergency. To date, funds have not been made available under this authority. Other groups, such as the IOM (1984) study of the organizational structure of NIH and the President’s Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic (1988), also recommended that funds be made available to the Director of NIH for use at his discretion. These recommendations have not been implemented. Assuring Quality The committee has four major recommendations designed to assure that the quality of the intramural program be maintained at a high level for the future. The first three relate to assuring that the review process can be seen to be rigorous and leads to wise use of intramural resources. The last recommends a program to make NIH competitive for a share of the most promising young investigators in the country. The Review Process To improve the external validity of the review process, the committee recommends that a panel chaired by a member of the Director’s Advisory Committee should be established to monitor the intramural research program review. The functions of this panel would be to monitor the integrity of the process, while taking care not to replicate the activities of the boards of scientific counselors. Its oversight should focus on areas that are most vulnerable to criticism, namely the selection of the reviewers and the implementation of recommendations.
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? Each of the scientific directors and their intramural programs should be reviewed as a whole every four years by an external group. The review report should be submitted to the director of the relevant institute, the NIH Deputy Director for Intramural Research, the Director of NIH, and the Director’s Advisory Committee. The committee believes that such a review is necessary because of the importance of ensuring the vitality of the intramural program. The intent of the periodic review is not to limit arbitrarily the term of the scientific director, but rather, to put in place a process that will ensure vigorous leadership. Under the general leadership of the institute director, and with the advice of the Board of Scientific Counselors, the scientific director exercises a decisive role in influencing the intramural program. The right person in this position functions not merely as a caretaker, but a force for excellence. The responsibility of the scientific director requires that he/she have the scientific vision needed to allocate intramural resources productively, as well as to function as a highly skilled manager. Therefore, the committee recommends that those holding the position of scientific director receive additional compensation. This will become possible under the recommended personnel demonstration program. An NIH Scholars Program In the past, most young scientists have entered NIH as postdoctoral fellows immediately after completing their M.D. or Ph.D. programs. They usually lack postdoctoral research training, which they then receive at NIH under the guidance of a senior scientist. If they perform well, they are asked to remain in the institute, where they gradually advance up the scientific and administrative ladder. They usually remain for a number of years under the immediate direction of a senior scientist. While independence is often achieved, it may be delayed past the time when it would be achieved if the individual changed institutions. This system has the advantage that it provides a constant supply of junior workers who assist in the projects of senior scientists. In many instances, these postdoctoral fellows receive outstanding training. When they finally achieve independence, many of them become highly productive scientists and make up the core of NIH. Although the system has worked well in the past, it does not assure a steady flow of new ideas. Postdoctoral fellows who train at NIH under a particular laboratory chief tend to reflect the scientific slant of that preceptor. When they mature as scientists, they tend to continue an existing tradition, but they may not be able to bring as effectively new ideas and approaches to the general scientific community of NIH. At universities this problem is solved by the continual recruitment of new assistant professors who were trained in other institutions. These young scientists bring new disciplines that they have learned during their postdoctoral fellowships. Although NIH recruits each year forresearchers at the assistant and associate professor levels (GS-13, −14), NIH does not have a mechanism designed specifically to allow it to recruit systematically the best young minds.
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? The committee believes that this problem can be solved by the creation of an NIH Scholars Program. This proposed program to recruit the brightest young investigators at the most creative stages of their careers could be modeled on an existing program at the Whitehead Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and on the Rockefeller Scholars Program. Aside from providing a continuing source of highly qualified young researchers, the program would open opportunities for the scientific directors of each institute to oversee the development of new initiatives outside of the existing laboratory structure. The committee believes that it is in the best interest of both NIH and the overall biomedical research community that NIH have a process designed to ensure that it systematically recruits its share of the best young investigators available. The committee recommends that Congress authorize and appropriate funds for an NIH Scholars Program in which outstanding young investigators at the assistant professor level would be appointed on a competitive basis to independent, non-tenured positions in the intramural program. The program would have several features to make it as attractive as other prestigious appointments now available in academic institutions. To achieve this, prospective scholars must perceive that the institutes are competing to employ the best talent that universities have to offer, that resources are available to make this experience highly productive, and this is seen as a major step toward an outstanding career. Up to six scholars per year should be offered appointments for six years as independent basic or clinical researchers. Each institute could propose up to three candidates per year. A sum of $1.5 million over 6 years could be allocated to support each scholar and the research needs. It is proposed that the Director of NIH fund this program from his newly-created discretionary appropriation. The committee believes that this sum ($250,000 per year on average) would be adequate to pay for the salary of the scholar and necessary technicians, as well as to provide for minor space modifications and necessary supplies and equipment. The Director should establish procedures for selecting scholars. The selections should be made on the basis of several criteria, the most important being the excellence of the candidate’s record and plans for the future. Each NIH scholar should be appointed for six years. After the sixth year in the program, the scholar would be eligible for appointment to a tenure or non-tenure position in the sponsoring institute or in another institute of NIH. However, such a position is not guaranteed. The beginning salary should be approximately equal to that of an assistant professor in a basic science department of a medical school for Ph.D.s, and in a clinical department for M.D.s. After the first year, the salary could be increased at the discretion of the scientific director of the institute. It is anticipated that some of these scientists would remain at NIH following the 6-year term, thereby increasing the pool from which NIH leadership is selected. It is also expected that some of these scholars will take positions of leadership outside the NIH—furthering NIH’s traditional role of seeding the extramural research community.
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A Healthy NIH Intramural Program: Structural Change or Administrative Remedies? Chapter 4 REFERENCES Bureau of the Budget. 1962. Report to the President on Government Contracting for Research and Development. Senate Document No. 94, 87th Congress, 2nd Session. Dean, A.L. and H Seidman. 1988. Options for Organizational and Management Reform for the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health. National Academy of Public Administration. Commissioned paper. Lambright, W.H. 1976. Governing Science and Technology. New York: Oxford Press. National Academy of Public Administration. 1983. Revitalizing Federal Management: Managers and Their Overburdened Systems. Washington, D.C: NAPA. National Institute of Education Act of 1972 (86 STAT 327). National Institutes of Health. 1988. The Nation’s Commitment to Health Through Biomedical Research—The NIH, the NIH Intramural Research Program and the Pursuit of Scientific Excellence. White Paper prepared for the Institute of Medicine Committee to Study Strategies to Strengthen the Scientific Excellence of the NIH Intramural Research Program. National Science Foundation. 1988. National Science Foundation Recruitment of Scientists and Engineers: The Salary Issue. Paper prepared for the NSF Director and Executive Council by the Division of Personnel and Management. Office of Federal Procurement Policy. 1984. (OFPP Policy Letter 84–1). Report of the President’s Commission on Privatization. March 1988. Privatization Toward. More Effective Government. P.L. 99-574, 100th Congress. 1987. National Bureau of Standards Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1987. P.L. 92-426, 92nd Congress H.R. 2. September 21, 1972. Appendix A. An act to establish a Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. P.L. 92-209, 90th Congress, S. 814. December 18, 1967. (81 STAT 656, 16 USC 19e-19n). An act to establish the National Park Foundation. S.2222. 1988. 100th Congress, 2d Session. National Research Institutes Reauthorization Act of 1988.
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