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Don’t get distracted over ARPA-H fight; let’s win the bigger prize

Congress has approved a new agency — the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) — that will ‘supercharge’ breakthrough medical research and provide over $1 billion in new research funding.

A fight has broken out, however, over ARPA-H’s headquarters’ location. The Maryland congressional delegation is working to locate it in state, but when a majority in Congress senses a chance to put a prestigious scientific headquarters in their home districts, Maryland likely will not win this battle.

But jockeying for the ARPA-H headquarters overlooks the critical point that little research will take place at the headquarters, just as internal defense research does not take place at the DARPA headquarters in Northern Virginia. Instead, Maryland and the region should be thinking of ways to compete to win ARPA-H grants, regardless of where the headquarters ends up.

More importantly, this dispute should trigger Maryland to consider ways to take better advantage of the NIH in Bethesda: the world’s largest bio medical institution, comprising over 6,000 scientists, Nobel Prize winners and $40 billion budget.

What might those strategies be?

A new NIH director is expected to be named shortly. A group of biotechnology supporters, local economic development officials and others should have a meeting to strategize on ways NIH can work to create more local technological impact.

Many communities across the country create local nonprofit advocacy organizations for federal labs, such as the Army Alliance that supports the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Hartford County. A similar group should be set up by local Maryland and Montgomery County officials to support NIH.

Reform NIH conflict of interest laws to attract and retain entrepreneurial research talent at NIH. Department of Energy Researchers, under legislation in Congress, would be able to work with spin-out companies from U.S. Department of Energy Labs and have opportunities for three-year entrepreneurial leaves of absence. Congress should consider giving more flexibility to NIH researchers.

Montgomery County and Prince George’s County should organize and market a Purple Line Technology Corridor between NIH and New Carrolton. A broad Purple Line Corridor could encompass NIH, NOAA, United Therapeutics, FDA headquarters in White Oak, Army Research Lab in Adelphi, NASA Goddard, and UMD College Park, making it one of the nation’s most important tech corridors, leveraging this $4 billon transportation project.

Consider an enhanced role for the NIH National Library of Medicine. Since it lies outside the gates of the main campus, perhaps a new public-private partnering facility could be developed, linking data sciences with biological science advances in a more publicly accessible location.

Promote the NIH Foundation and Jackson Labs: These are two congressionally chartered organizations based in Maryland that have flexibility to build public-private health partnerships in conjunction with NIH. The NIH Foundation supports private-sector philanthropic partnerships. The Jackson Foundation that was launched to advance military medicine has grown into a global organization supporting over seven hundred research grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements.

Create more cross-cutting initiatives across the NIH Institutes. The National Science Foundation recently created the Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP) directorate — the first in 30 years— that creates breakthrough technologies and high wage jobs across all of NSF’s research sectors. NIH has taken steps to create more cross-cutting institute initiatives, but more might be done by formally establishing something like NSF’s TIP.

These are some of the ways to make NIH more ‘ARPA’-like while keeping NIH’s fundamental national research mission and delivering more local technology development outcomes.

Brian Darmody is chief strategy officer for AURP, a nonprofit based in UMD Discovery District and U of Arizona Tech Park.