[Thank you to NAADAC Govt. Relations Associate Mara Gray for contributing to this post!]
Early last month, a long-simmering controversy within the addiction research community was reignited. At the February Advisory Council meetings of the
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a special review board publicly re-raised the issue of merging the two addiction-focused research agencies.
When the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were reauthorized by Congress in 2006, the Scientific Review Management Board (SRMB) was created to report on the way NIH was organized. Former Lockheed Martin CEO
Norman Augustine was named chair. The NIDA-NIAAA merger is one of the SRMB’s inaugural two recommendations (the other involves the NIH Intramural Research Program).
The main argument in favor of merger is the efficiency that can be obtained by joining the two addiction-focused institutes into one. In theory, one agency would mean less overhead costs and bureaucracy. The savings could then be passed on to researchers. Ideally, savings would be realized not only by eliminating redundancies within the two institutes, but for NIH as a whole, which currently oversees and coordinates the efforts of 27 separate centers and institutes.
If you’re getting a sense of déjà vu, there’s good reason. A merger was considered most recently in 2003 at the request of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Enoch Gordis, former Director of NIAAA, was one of the most
vocal opponents of that merger. He argued that alcohol-focused research was already receiving only a fraction of the funding that it deserved, and there was no way a merger would lead to more funding for alcohol research. Quite to the contrary, a merger risked overshadowing alcohol as it became subsumed by NIDA’s pre-existing agenda and objectives.
NIDA’s fiscal year 2009 budget was $1,032,700,000. NIAAA’s was $450,200,000. Any merger that involved an overall budget cut to addiction research as a whole would likely lose the support of even those organizations which are tentatively open to entertaining merger discussions.
Dr. Gordis also argued back in 2003 that alcohol was fundamentally different from other drugs. Alcohol, he stated, was not only a drug, but a food. Also, because alcohol is a legal substance, it is different psychosocially than other drugs. (NIDA, however, does extensive research on another widely used legal, though age-restricted, drug—nicotine.)
The alcohol industry also opposed the 2003 merger recommendation. Jeff Becker, President of the Beer Institute, stated that such a merger would be a step backwards for an industry that tries to distance its product from illegal drugs.
One ironic effect of a merger would be a renewed chance to re-name the institutes; a push that was made during Congress’s last session but ultimately fell short.