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NIH jettisons plan for single addictions institute

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has shelved plans to create a single institute devoted to the study of substance abuse, saying that it will instead maintain two existing, separate institutes that are devoted to studying, respectively, drug addiction and alcohol abuse.

The NIH director, Francis Collins, announced in a statement today that “after rigorous review and extensive consultation,” he has opted not to pursue a proposed dissolving of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The two institutes, with respective budgets of $1 billion and $459 million, would have been replaced by a single, substance use, abuse and addictions institute. Instead, Collins, said, he will seek “functional integration” of the two existing institutes’ work, along with related research housed in the agency’s 25 other institutes and centres.

Nature examined the proposal for a single addictions institute in-depth in this news article, “Plan for Addiction Institute Splits NIH.”  That article was published shortly after a board that advises Collins on major structural changes at NIH recommended, on a vote of 12-3, that the single institute be established.

Today, Collins said that the time, energy and resources that would be needed to enact a major structural reorganization were not warranted in a time of fiscal duress for the agency. He added that the same ends could be achieved by better coordination of addiction-related work among all existing NIH institutes.

The decision represents an about-face for Collins, who told his committee of external advisers in June: “The goal at the moment is to aim to launch this new institute at the start of [fiscal year] 2014, on October 1 2013.”

At the June meeting Collins also noted, “We have heard from leaders in the alcoholic beverage industry and they are concerned about this new institute.” The opposition suggests the industry was uncomfortable with a research entity that would more closely link public perceptions of alcohol consumption and abuse with drug addiction.

Another factor may have played into the decision: NIH’s launch in January of the new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, and the attendant dissolution of the agency’s National Center for Research Resources. The reorganization had generated controversy at NIH (See “NIH Revamp Rushes Ahead.”) and with that experience fresh in mind, the agency’s leaders may have lost their appetite for further major structural change so soon.

To get a sense of the split engendered at NIH by the proposal to establish a single addictions institute, consider the reactions to the proposal, two years ago, from two former directors of the relevant institutes:

“It makes infinite scientific sense. There’s no question that these are all drugs of abuse and addiction and they should be treated together, dealt with together.”

–Alan Leshner, who directed NIH’s drug abuse institute from 1994 to 2001

“It’s a terrible idea. This is not a meeting of equals. This is one institute trying to take over another.”

–Enoch Gordis, director of the NIH’s alcohol abuse institute for 15 years, until 2001


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