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Biennial Report of the Director
National Institutes of Health Fiscal Years 2006 & 2007



NIH Centers of Excellence

Introduction

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Centers of Excellence are diverse in focus, scope, and origin. In general, they facilitate and coordinate research efforts on a specific disease, a group of diseases, or an area of research. Some were created as NIH-wide initiatives, others by individual Institutes and Centers (ICs), some reflect mergers or redesignations of existing programs, and some were congressionally mandated. The NIH Centers of Excellence described in this report are a subset—those established by statutory mandate.

Some congressionally mandated Centers of Excellence focus on long-recognized, significant challenges to public health, such as Alzheimer's disease and other conditions that have a major impact on aging populations. Other centers focus attention on areas of research that might otherwise be underfunded, such as rare diseases or research on minority health and other health disparities. Depending on when they were established and how many research sites have been funded, Centers of Excellence vary in size, scope, and outcomes.

The specific research goals and activities of the centers vary according to their mandates. In general, however, Centers of Excellence help establish critical research infrastructure, foster collaboration, train physician scientists and other professional staff, and provide shared resources, often through core facilities. Shared resources include systems for data gathering and analysis, instrumentation and computing, and the development of large patient registries. Research at the centers is often multidisciplinary and designed to encourage scientists and clinicians from diverse fields to come together to focus on a common set of objectives.

NIH Centers of Excellence seek to integrate basic and translational research and to move those findings efficiently toward clinical applications, some of which are evaluated in patient populations brought together at the centers. Results from these studies may have spinoffs that increase knowledge about other areas of research. Through outreach and communication efforts, the centers inform researchers and the public of scientific advances and improvements in medical care. Research at the congressionally mandated NIH Centers of Excellence is supported by administrative and program staff at individual ICs. Centers are funded for several years and then must recompete for support.

It is important to note that the creation of Centers of Excellence should only take place after an assessment of whether there is an adequate base of knowledge or number of expert investigators; what research opportunities are being adequately supported through existing or planned funding mechanisms and initiatives; or the appropriateness of alternative funding mechanisms. Congress has recognized they should create centers of excellence only under certain circumstances and provided the NIH Director with a new authority, through the NIH Reform Act of 2006, to review and approve the establishment of all centers of excellence recommended by the agency's institutes and centers.

This chapter provides overviews, outcomes (in the form of programmatic and research accomplishments), recommendations, evaluation plans, and future directions for the six congressionally mandated NIH Centers of Excellence programs, which are described in order of their establishment:

  • Alzheimer's Disease Centers (1984)
  • Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Centers of Excellence (1989)
  • Senator Paul D. Wellstone Muscular Dystrophy Cooperative Research Centers (2001)
  • National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities Centers of Excellence (2001)
  • Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network (2002)
  • New Autism Centers of Excellence (2006), which merged the previously existing Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism and Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment

Tables listing the Centers of Excellence for each program appear in the appendix at the end of this chapter.