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Biological Chemistry

Movers And Shakers

C&EN Talks With Jon Lorsch

New director of NIH’s basic research institute plans for rocky economic times

by Britt E. Erickson
November 4, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 44

Credit: Britt Erickson/C&EN
For Lorsch, allowing scientists to “follow their noses” is key.
This is a photo of Jon Lorsch, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at NIH.
Credit: Britt Erickson/C&EN
For Lorsch, allowing scientists to “follow their noses” is key.

After being on the job for less than two months, Jon R. Lorsch, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), faced something he never thought would happen. On Oct. 1, as a result of the government shutdown, 98% of the staff at NIGMS was furloughed.

NIGMS, part of the National Institutes of Health, funds basic research in the biomedical sciences, including more chemistry-related research than any of the 26 other NIH institutes and centers. With a current annual budget of about $2.4 billion, NIGMS supports about 11%, or some 4,600, of the NIH-funded grants each year.

During the partial government shutdown, several meetings to review grant proposals were canceled. About 1,000 proposals assigned to NIGMS were affected. Favorable proposals would have been further evaluated at a meeting in January, when the final decision about funding each proposal would have been made. But now it is unclear how many proposals will be reviewed in time for the January meeting. Final decisions about some proposals could be pushed until the next meeting in May.

“We’re working hard to get back on track, but there will be ripple effects for some time,” Lorsch tells C&EN.

Lorsch, a biochemist and leader in RNA biology, is optimistic about the future of NIGMS, despite the havoc created by the government shutdown and the uncertainty related to the federal budget. He moved into the top spot at the institute in August, replacing Acting Director Judith H. Greenberg, who had been leading NIGMS since former director Jeremy M. Berg left the post for a position at the University of Pittsburgh in 2011.

What has excited Lorsch the most during his first few months on the job is the energy and ideas of the NIGMS staff. They are always looking for “the most efficient and effective ways to invest the taxpayers’ money to promote fundamental biomedical research,” he says. But with limited funds and a “lot of good, exciting science being proposed by the research community, deciding the most effective way to distribute the funds is a major challenge,” he adds.

Lorsch emphasizes that he doesn’t know where the next big breakthroughs and discoveries in biomedical research will come from. He declines to identify any particular areas of untapped biomedical research that are promising to him, but he notes that “it is critically important to continue funding investigator-initiated, question-driven research.

“Letting scientists follow their noses has worked extremely well in the past, and we are confident it will continue to work extremely well in the future,” Lorsch says.

Before moving to NIGMS, Lorsch was a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. There, he worked on unraveling the molecular mechanism behind translation initiation—the assembly of a ribosome on a messenger RNA molecule. Disruption of that process can lead to many human diseases.

Lorsch is confident that his background in fundamental research about living systems will position him well to steer NIGMS through turbulent times. He views science as about questions as opposed to about specific disciplines. Although he holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard University, he notes that it is hard to define himself as solely a biochemist because he is also a biophysicist and a molecular biologist. “I think the fact that my science lacks definition is a strength,” he tells C&EN.

A lot of attention is currently on translational research at NIH to spur the development of new drugs, but Lorsch is optimistic that support for basic, fundamental science will remain strong. Even so, he is keen to embark on an analysis of the current research portfolio at NIGMS and begin a strategic planning process to ensure that taxpayers’ money is well spent. That process “will require close collaboration with the research community, including the chemistry community,” he says.

NIH’s budget doubled from 1998 to 2003, but it has been essentially flat ever since. “Transitioning us from the models that were developed during the budget-doubling period to new models that will be optimal for the coming years is really critical,” Lorsch says. “How we do things at NIGMS needs to be agile so that we can evolve in response to the changing external environment,” he stresses.

NIGMS is also working on ways to better measure the outcomes of both its diversity and training programs, Lorsch says. “We would like to empower the community to do innovative experiments in the training arena to find out what works well and what doesn’t,” he says. “We want to produce the most vibrant, best-trained, most productive scientific workforce in the biomedical enterprise.”

Lorsch is no stranger to NIGMS. His research was funded by the institute for more than a decade. His former lab at Hopkins will move to the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD) at NIH. Two graduate students will remain Hopkins students but will work at NIH, and all four of his postdocs will move to NIH. It works out well, Lorsch says, because he has been collaborating with yeast geneticists and molecular biologists at NICHD for more than a dozen years. “Now,” he remarks, “we will have one large super group.”



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