All NIH Roadmap for Medical Research programs that are expected to transition to Institute/Center funding or that are expected to receive a second term of Roadmap funding are required to undergo a mid-course review. This report summarizes the deliberations, findings, and recommendations of an expert Panel that convened in August 2007 to conduct a Mid-Course Review of the Technology Centers for Networks and Pathways (TCNP) Program, which is a key component of the Building Blocks, Biological Pathways, and Networks Roadmap Implementation Working Group.
Presently, limitations of proteomics technologies often force investigators to treat dynamic systems as either static or as binary shifts between static states. Complementary strategies, orthogonal to conventional proteomics, are necessary to take proteomics research to the next level, where the focus is on dynamics. The TCNPs are striving to create technologies to measure the dynamics of protein interactions, modifications, translocation, expression, and activity, and to do so with temporal, spatial, and quantitative resolution. The program is intended to build a bridge between the quantitative and interaction domains, and to break out of the artificially static view of complex systems. The Centers are unique among NIH-supported proteomics programs because of their focus on the dynamics of protein interactions and emphasis on imaging and quantitative methods.
Five TCNPs have been funded for five years each. The original plan for the program anticipated one competing renewal for each Center for a total project period of ten years. Two Centers were started in September 2004, and three more in September 2005. Awards range between $12M and $17M over five years (total costs). These five separately funded TCNPs cooperate in a networked national effort to develop instrumentation, biophysical methods, reagents, and infrastructure for temporal and spatial characterization of complex biochemical pathways and networks of interactions. They collaborate with biomedical researchers through several mechanisms, providing a push–pull between technological advancement and biomedical problem solving. The Centers are also tasked with providing broad access to the technologies, methods, and reagents they develop, and with providing appropriate interdisciplinary academic and peer training for biomedical researchers.
Overall, the expert Panel reacted positively to the TCNP Program. They agreed that the goals of the TCNP Program are laudable. Although the program is relatively new, it is clearly focused on an important problem, and the Panel recommends that it be continued. The awardees are investigating issues that will result in new knowledge and propel us to new understanding in the gap areas that have been defined as worthy of a focused effort under this initiative. Panel members strongly believe that it is important to encourage methodology and technology development, because traditional grant programs are highly unlikely to support research in these areas. The TCNPs have the opportunity to make unique and much needed contributions. Although the Panel was not charged with assessing how well the Centers are doing in achieving the goals of the program, Panel members raised concern that several Centers are not on track to achieving the goals and, therefore, when the program is renewed, it should be through open competition. In addition, the Panel urges NIH and the Centers to seriously consider the specific suggestions made in the Science and Management Questions section of this review, examples of which include:
- Make the Driving Biological Projects (DBPs) Program more flexible and stagger the timing of these awards
- Provide the Center Principal Investigators with small amounts of funding to jump-start collaborations in order to foster applications for spoke grants
- Place more emphasis on grant mechanisms such as the R21 (developmental grant), the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Program grants and contracts
- Designate a technically competent person as a contact for each collaboration
- Develop a clear-cut identity and stronger branding for each Center and the TCNP Program as a whole
- Provide the senior Center personnel with training in project management and strategic planning
- Require each Center to develop a strategic plan
- Place greater emphasis on promoting collaborations and resources at a variety of important national meetings
- Require that each Center have an external advisory board
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