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Tribal Leaders Participate in Inaugural Listening Session with Federal Agency

On March 19, 2024, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), introduced itself to Tribal leaders at its first listening session. ARPA-H, an agency within the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), was founded in March of 2022 and funds research for health breakthroughs to provide solutions from the molecular to the societal level, according to the Dear Tribal Leader Letter. The listening session was geared toward giving Tribal leaders an overview of the agency’s mission, objectives, and participation opportunities.

Tribal leaders heard from the Director of ARPA-H, Renee Wegrzyn, who explained how ARPA-H has unique structures and legal authorities that allow it to function like a business. Director Wegrzyn highlighted six features of ARPA-H that allow for this unique function:

  1. ARPA-H is a funding agency.
  2. Independent component of HHS within NIH, though ARPA-H is not an Institute.
  3. No internal research labs; disease agnostic.
  4. $2.5 billion in appropriations; budget independent from National Institutes of Health.
  5. Generally fund outcome-based contracts, not grants; accelerated award timelines.
  6. Bottoms-up problem centric approach to address the toughest challenges in health.

Director Wegrzyn discussed how the funding process will work and the criteria for which the agency will review funding applications. The process begins with the agency releasing a call for proposals based on health-related challenges that are not easily solvable through traditional means. These challenges may be proposed from internal or external sources. Applicants then compete against one another to create innovative and result-driven solutions, with the most successful solutions continuing through the process. Tribal leaders asked whether their communities would be eligible to partner with the agency to which Director Wegrzyn explained that anyone may apply and that Tribal communities may even prefer working with ARPA-H, as opposed to other federal agencies, because the ARPA-H funding is much less restrictive than other sources of federal funding because innovation is built into the expenditure of funds.

Tribal leaders focused some of the discussion on a particular challenge they believe ARPA-H is uniquely situated to take on - climate change. Tribal leaders pointed out that natural medicines used in traditional healing are under threat as climate change is making it increasingly difficult for certain plants to grow in their natural habitats. Director Wegrzyn shared that climate change, as it relates to decreased growth of certain plants, is an interesting topic of intersectionality because while it is true that many traditional medicines face this threat, modern medicine utilizes many of the same plants as traditional medicines. So, it is in everyone’s best interest to ensure that plants used for traditional medicines remain abundant as many people rely on them. This part of the conversation underscored the fact that traditional medicine works so well that it has been adopted to be utilized in a variety of modern-day medications, and how Tribal communities have an opportunity to lead the effort to reduce the impacts of climate change in this space.

Director Wegrzyn concluded the discussion by inviting Tribal leaders who wanted to learn more about APRA-H to email the agency at [email protected].

National Indian Health Board
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