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September 4, 2022

Interview with Jim Olds

Jim Olds is the University Professor of Neuroscience and Public Policy at George Mason University. He served from 2014-2018 as head of the Biological Sciences Directorate at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), responsible for an annual budget of $750M. While there, he was also NSF lead for President Obama’s White House BRAIN Initiative, deputy lead for NSF on Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, and co-chaired the White House Life Sciences Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council. Olds received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Michigan and his BA in chemistry from Amherst College.

Can you compare and contrast your experiences at NIH and NSF? 

I was at NIH at the very beginning of my career and at NSF after I had already served as professor and senior administrator for many years at George Mason. So, it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison. But what I can say is that my time in the NIH intramural research program was scientifically exciting.  It was a very optimistic time in neuroscience. There was a sense that if we could figure out how learning and memory worked in the healthy brain—particularly in terms of molecular mechanisms—then we could apply that knowledge in a broad array of human brain diseases. I worked on a large team of international researchers, and we divided our time between Bethesda and Woods Hole. We studied learning in marine snails and mamallian brains with the idea that evolution had conserved mechanisms since memory is so important to survival.

At NSF, we were exclusively funding extramural life sciences research—about 97% of our budget went out the door to basic biological research at America’s colleges and universities. It was also intensely satisfying, but in a very different way. Instead of conducting the research we were catalyzing it—at all levels from the very small dissertation completion grant to the massive National Ecological Observatory Network. At the same time, we had agency lead role in Obama’s Brain initiative and the then Vice President’s Cancer Moonshot.

Do you have any recommendations about how government scientific funding should be run? For example, how much should we give precedence to peer review? 

I believe in the NSF model, where peer review is advisory. It’s a healthy mid-way point between DARPA and NIH. In my opinion that middle model allows for high risk, high pay-off science to be funded, while at the same time staying grounded in the views of the community. I’d also like to call out (in a positive way) the diversity of NSF advisory peer review—many more junior folks and much more reflective of the population’s diverse makeup.

What do you think about the current structure of NIH (27 ICs plus the Director’s Office), plus an intramural program? If you could redesign NIH from scratch, what would it look like? [For example, what would be the balance between intramural and extramural, between different diseases and body parts, between basic and applied science, and so forth?]

Great question! I’d keep the intramural program and probably build on it so that it would resemble aspects of HHMI’s programs in terms of bringing cohorts onboard who reside, not in Bethesda, but at their home institution. I’d slim down the ICO’s by quite a bit. My preferred organization would be based on life sciences rather than diseases or organ systems. So, Cancer research might be in a Cell Cycle/Development Institute.  Infectious disease might live in an Immunology Institute. And so on. The total number would be less than ten.