Role as a Government laboratory

The government has as one of its functions to provide needed products and services that the private sector cannot or will not do. Although federal money flows to other participants in biomedical research, only the intramural program is both totally federally funded and staffed with employees who work directly for the government. This confers both advantages and obligations. The major advantage derives from financing that does not depend on discrete, time-limited grants or contracts awarded on a competitive basis. As a result, scientific projects can be long-term and resource managers can use more flexible criteria and individual judgment in resource allocation decisions.

As a government laboratory, the NIH intramural program is obliged to respond to congressional requests and national priorities that affect its scientific agenda. In practice, although Congress allows the program managers great discretion in establishing research priorities, there is a continuing, but beneficial tension in the appropriate balancing of congressional and scientific imperatives.

The Environment

The environment for science that has been created on the NIH campus enables the intramural program to pursue its goals. The importance of this setting has been recognized by many observers. The President’s Biomedical Research Panel in 1976 described the program as:

“An outstanding setting for a combination of clinical and basic research experience for promising young scientists and physicians by virtue of access to an innovative research hospital that facilitates the freest communication between laboratories and clinics and between creative investigation and practical application—it includes an extraordinary diversity of scientific competence that provides unique opportunities for interchange and collaboration; the opportunity for concentration of research without a requirement for teaching or health care service; and excellent, although diminishing resources” (Report of the President’s Biomedical Research Panel, 1976).

Twelve years later this IOM committee heard similar sentiments both from witnesses at its public hearing and from scientists in the intramural program.

Undoubtedly, the environment plays an important role in attracting scientists to the intramural program—and is for some scientists the only setting with the freedom they need to perform creative research. The environment also plays a part in generating good science. The ability to initiate and conduct collaborative work quickly and effectively, the ease of communication across disciplines and institutes that is increasingly

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