Changes Afoot at NIH - More $$$ for Science Education?

Carol Lynn Alpert

The National Institutes of Health maintains a 30 billion dollar portfolio of health and biomedical research, a yearly budget that roundly trumps that of the National Science Foundation (about 7 billion) and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (1.6 billion). Although NIH has no “Broader Impacts” criterion in its RFPs, it does expect researchers to contribute to education and outreach. This is fairly fertile territory for science museums to explore, perhaps through nurturing relationships with local NIH-funded research institutes. Now there's an interesting new development.

NIH, with a portion of the extra funding provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, issued a general call for STEM Challenge Grant education, outreach and training proposals to be administered out of the Office of Science Education. This is apparently the first time NIH has initiated a program to solicit research proposals in general STEM learning and engagement (Note: STEM means Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math - not to be confused with stem cells, - and the call was not confined to biomedicine or health education and outreach. Between 400 and 500 STEM research proposals were submitted on short notice. While most of these proposals came from university-based STEM education researchers, several were submitted by rapidly responding teams at science museums and other informal science education institutions, and these are being given due consideration alongside the more research-oriented proposals. Like NSF, NIH is keenly interested in projects that advance the field, or have significant impact beyond a single institution. Dr. Bruce Fuchs, who directs the NIH Office of Science Education, is currently soliciting comment from the community about the wisdom of investing more NIH funding into education, training, and outreach, particularly to address the narrowing and increasingly leaky pipeline of young people into skilled STEM careers, and also to enhance public awareness of biomedical research. Potentially, ISE’s will have new opportunities to carry out their mission, beyond the NSF ISE program and the existing NIH SEPA program. Most science museums are already familiar with SEPA, the Science Education Partnership Award program, run out of the NIH institute known as NCRR, under the enthusiastic leadership of Program Officer Dr. Tony Beck. This is a relatively modest grant program that every year funds a few new 3-5-year museum-based health and biomedical education and dissemination efforts that join the museum to one or more partnering biomedical research institutions. The program has funded exhibits and programs at many NISE-associated museums, including MOS, OMSI, SMM, Exploratorium, NYHoS, NCLMS, and the Children’s Museum of Houston. SEPA has funded at least one nanomedicine education project, supporting the development of the Nanomedicine Explorer, which is now part of the NISE Nanomedicine Exhibit and is also available in the catalog as a stand-alone interactive kiosk for updating health science and medical exhibits. Of particular interest to NISE Net associates, NIH is steadily increasing its portfolio of nanomedicine research projects. These are run out of various institutes, but there is an overall Nanomedicine Roadmap published on the web, with an overview of the research and links to many of the programs. The National Cancer Institute also sponsors the NCI Alliance for Cancer Nanomedicine. These websites are also good places to find out what is happening in nanomedicine, perhaps in your own neighborhood. ISE staff might consider trying to make contact with researchers who might like to join forces for public engagement, now or at some point in the future. In 2009, NIH sponsored its own “NanoWeek” at its headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, which ran just the week following the NISE Net’s NanoDays. I have been in touch with the Trans-NIH Nano Task Force to see if we might be able to coordinate our nano public outreach event weeks for 2010, and have just recently heard back that the NIH NanoWeek will not be held in 2010, but will possibly be revived for 2011. If that happens, my NIH correspondent tells me, their people will be happy to talk with our people. Lastly, President Obama has nominated Dr. Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health. Questioning the wisdom of this choice in a 7/27/09 Opinion piece in the New York Times, Sam Harris brings up troubling questions regarding Dr. Collin's commitment to reconciling science and evangelical Christianity. We will be interested in seeing if the NYT provides an opportunity for Dr. Collins to respond. AUGUST 7 UPDATE: THE SENATE TODAY CONFIRMED PRESIDENT OBAMA'S NOMINATION OF FRANCIS COLLINS TO LEAD THE NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH. And, yes, the New York Times DID publish a number of rebuttals to the Sam Harris Op-Ed piece that criticized the Collins nomination. - cla