Confronted with essentially stagnant budgets in coming years, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is initiating an unprecedented effort to solicit the views of the cancer community about setting its future research priorities. NCI wants greater input from its own staff and advisory groups, cancer researchers and clinicians, advocates, and other groups that fund cancer research as it decides where to focus its future efforts, according to a briefing document provided to the National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) subcommittee on budget and planning.
"We really are very serious about the fact that we want input from the community-as widely as possible-into the decision-making process before the fact, rather than simply to validate or assent to things," NCI director Andrew C. von Eschenbach, MD, told the NCAB subcommittee.
During the past 5 years, the House and Senate have almost doubled NCI's funding with annual increases greater than 10%, which came about as part of Congress' plan to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health over 5 years. However, for fiscal year 2004, which begins on October 1, 2003, President Bush has asked Congress for an increase of only 3.5% over his amended request for the current fiscal year-this would cover little more than the cost of inflation in the next fiscal year.
Currently, the NCI gathers advice about its priorities from its advisory group members, informal discussions with interested parties, Progress Review Group recommendations, and periodic requests for suggestions about new extraordinary opportunities in research. Over the years, however, many researchers and advocates have complained that their advice is sought largely after the fact and not when it might have a strong impact on the agency's actual priorities and budget allocations.
Cherie Nichols, director of NCI's Office of Science Planning and Assessment, told the subcommittee that the institute realizes the value of an even wider and earlier consultation. "We are looking to engage the community, and we want to know about their concerns and their expectations-where they think the cancer opportunities are going to be in the next 10 to 15 years," she said. The new plan, she added, would more fully engage the cancer community, obtain as many perspectives as possible, provide opportunities for ongoing participation, and establish a feedback mechanism to ensure a meaningful dialog.