When Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) introduced the National Center for Bioengineering Research Act on the floor of the U.S. Senate in July 1997, he had four specific goals in mind: to establish a center dedicated to bioengineering research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH); to increase the proportion of funds devoted to basic bioengineering research at NIH; to improve the review of extramural bioengineering grant applications; and to boost intramural bioengineering research.

Supporting the Research
The impetus for a national bioengineering center, however, predates Frist's bill and its aims. During the 1993 budget reauthorization proceedings, the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources commissioned a report on bioengineering research at NIH. Two years later the agency submitted the completed study, entitled "Support for Bioengineering Research," which stressed the need for NIH to: 1) adequately support basic as well as applied bioengineering research; 2) establish a centralized focus for extramural bioengineering research and a strong intramural program; and 3) increase coordination of bioengineering activities within the institutes and among other federal agencies.

In 1997 NIH took its first steps toward addressing these needs by establishing the Bioengineering Consortium (BECON). Composed of representatives from each health institute and chaired by Wendy Baldwin, deputy director of extramural research, BECON assumed responsibility not only for coordinating bioengineering research at NIH but for identifying specific areas for further Federal funding. 

In February 1998, the consortium sponsored a two-day bioengineering conference at NIH's Bethesda headquarters. The gathering attracted more than 650 researchers, who identified approximately 70 related areas for future funding. NIH's decision about which of these areas to target is pending.

Prospects for a National Center
Supporters of Frist's legislation, however, have been quick to point out that the prospect of funding increases for bioengineering research does not necessarily mean that NIH officials have accepted the idea of a national center. Robert Nerem, director of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Institute of Technology and long-time advocate for a national center, says that the bioengineering community is "still waiting to see what NIH is going to do."

NIH director Harold Varmus has publicly voiced concern that institutionalizing bioengineering research in a center could "ghettoize the area." Some bioengineering researchers agree. Douglas Lauffenburger, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Biomedical Engineering, says that working through the existing NIH structure, we can "bring engineering and fundamental biology into more intimate contact and collaboration."

There are other issues at stake. Some bioengineers worry that separating bioengineering from the institutes that conduct basic biological research will make advances more difficult to achieve. Others simply do not want to separate their work from NIH's more disease-specific institutes. As Murray Sachs, chair of the biomedical engineering department at Johns Hopkins University, notes, "I would not want my own research [on the neurophysiology of deafness] anywhere but in the deafness institute." 

Varied opinions within the bioengineering community itself about the wisdom of establishing a centralized research facility call into question the likelihood of the National Center for Bioengineering Research ever becoming a reality. Ultimately, the proposal's fate may depend on how strongly Senator Frist decides to press the issue within Congress. Nerem's  "gut-level feeling is that if Frist stopped pushing [for the idea], everything would grind to a halt."

Mark Marin is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C.

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