A Match Made in Science Policy Heaven

Everyone knows someone who has dived fearlessly into the world of online dating and found the perfect match.  But did you know that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) plays matchmaker between federal agencies and scientists who are interested in getting their feet wet in the science policy arena?

Here at NIH, we host up to 40 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows each year.  This one-year fellowship provides the opportunity for scientists from a wide range of disciplines and career levels to experience the (science policy) sausage making process à la NIH, while at the same time bringing a wealth of scientific and analytical expertise to the table.  Since this is the time of year when all the action happens, it seemed like an ideal time to tell you about how this program works.

As you can imagine, the whole operation requires considerable coordination, and OSP is responsible for managing NIH’s involvement in the program.  In February and March, the Fellowship cycle begins, and we work to recruit offices from across NIH who are interested in potentially hosting a Fellow. One of the most challenging parts of our job comes next during April’s placement week.  During that week, Fellowship finalists converge on Washington en masse, and dash from agency-to-agency to participate in interviews with potential host offices (think of a cross between speed dating and a steeple chase!).  This all culminates in a matching process, where we work with AAAS to place finalists within NIH host offices.As you might imagine, only the best matches are placed across NIH’s Institutes and Centers, as well as within the Office of the NIH Director.  Fellows find homes in a range of different NIH offices that are engaged in policy, planning, communication, outreach, legislative affairs, program administration, and evaluation, to name but a few.

Once matching has concluded, the real work can then begin.  OSP works with the host offices, AAAS and the incoming Fellows, to begin the onboarding process in preparation for the Fellow’s first day in September.  When the Fellows arrive, OSP provides an NIH orientation to bring everyone up-to speed and then assists throughout the year in making the Fellows and host offices aware of the various AAAS and NIH program requirements.

Having worked closely with many of the AAAS Fellows (as well as having several OSP staff as alumni of the program) I see the Fellowship as a valuable tool in advancing NIH’s mission by fostering productive relationships between federal policy makers and scientific professionals.  I like to look at the OSP role in this as making sure that the relationships forged through this program begin and remain strong!  For more information about our involvement with the program please visit the OSP website.

A Seat at the Table: Behind the Scenes of the NIH-FDA-CMS Leadership Councils

One of the questions (or more accurately, lamentations) that I frequently hear when I am out amongst our stakeholder community is “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if you and other federal agencies got together and actually talked?”  Personally, I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment, and I wanted to take the opportunity to say unequivocally in response “YES!!  We actually do this pretty regularly.”  I want to highlight two successful and ongoing relationships that NIH has with some of its most important federal partners, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Let’s start with the NIH-FDA Joint Leadership Council.  As broad opportunities in translational research have come to the fore, it became clear that better coordination between agencies was necessary to fully take advantage of those handoffs from research to medical advancement.  As a result, the Joint Leadership Council was created, co-chaired by the NIH Director and FDA Commissioner, with senior staff from NIH Institutes and FDA Centers comprising the rest of the committee.  While the public perception of such interagency discussions might be “all talk and no action”, I am pleased to say that this effort has resulted in tangible products and improvements.

Some examples of what has come out of the leadership council include the BEST Resource and the NIH-FDA Protocol Template for Phase 2 and 3 IND/IDE Clinical Trials.   The BEST Resource came from the council’s recognition that a lack of consensus on terms used in translational science and medical product development was impeding research progress.  A working group of NIH and FDA leaders created a living glossary of important biomedical terms to ensure everyone was speaking the same language. As for the NIH-FDA template, that was developed with the goal of making it easier for investigators to prepare consistently organized protocols that can be easily reviewed by the FDA.  As a further extension of that, NIH then turned the template into the Clinical e-Protocol Writing Tool, which has been a huge success, drawing almost 2,000 visitors last month alone!

Another successful example of idea sharing between agencies is the NIH-CMS Leadership Council, which is of similar composition to the NIH-FDA council and is led by the NIH Director and CMS Administrator.  With CMS as the largest purchaser of health care in the United States, and NIH as the largest source of public funding for medical research in the world, it makes perfect sense for these agencies to work together.

NIH and CMS have used this forum to think about how to move NIH research results on evidence-based care into practice. As result of these discussions, a joint informational bulletin was sent out by CMS, NIH, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to State Medicaid Directors regarding coverage of early intervention services for initial episodes of psychosis.  This was an important event because NIH research has shown that coordinated specialty care is a better treatment option, and this approach is more likely to be available to patients if it is covered by Medicaid.  Some of the other topics that this council has discussed include coverage of ancillary clinical care costs, physician reimbursement in clinical trials, and genomic medicine resource sharing.

NIH is always looking for ways to coordinate and collaborate with our partners to identify common problems and come up with solutions that will benefit the research community.  Leadership level councils are not the only such vehicle – truthfully, interaction between agencies takes place on a nearly daily basis between subject matter experts – but they do represent an effective way to ensure our agencies are working together to achieve our missions. The best news is, since these councils are still active and sharing ideas, I am confident that there will be more positive examples in the years to come.