Why Politicians at the NIH Irritate Scientists: Part I
May 23, 2007
The letters in the 13 April issue of Science contain a few thoughts on funding issues from scientists. The fascinating thing is the reply by Director Zerhouni. It is a classic political reply, repeating his latest talking points on NIH funding without addressing the points raised by the letters. For example, all three letters address data that suggest that the traditional investigator-initiated R01 type of proposal is being de-emphasized in the current budget. Zerhouni, instead of addressing the point (and the data presented) obfuscates and sidesteps. His response is that R01s still represent the biggest category of grants at the NIH. This doesn’t, of course, address the point of the three letters that the relative representation of R01s is falling in recent years. He then asserts the value and supposed democratic support for the Roadmap, large scale projects and the like. This does not square with the experience of most scientists who universally, in my experience, criticized the initiative. Sure, they’ll take advantage now and, if funded, might say it is a good thing. But this was most certainly not a democratic, grass roots process.
Co-chairs of the NIH Grant Application Committee met with the NIH Peer Review Committee (PRAC) on April 19, 2007, and discussed responses to this question that were submitted by over 5,000 applicants and reviewers. An initial analysis of the input showed that the majority supported shortening the R01 grant application.
Why oh why do they try to spin us like this? Guess what? Scientists like data and precision! We’re capable of understanding basic descriptive statistics. So why not just tell us the actual stat instead of saying “majority”? Would it perhaps be because the actual data support a Bushian “mandate” of 52%? Would presenting the actual breakdown of opinions reveal that the NIH is bound and determined to make the change in the face of an essentially even split of opinions on the part of the researchers? As I’ve discussed before, this smells like a done deal with the survey-of-researchers stuff being mere window dressing. This isn’t really likely to win friends, even among those favorably disposed toward the concept.
Committee members then went over all responses and analyzed 500 randomly selected responses in detail. Based on this input, the Committee made the following recommendations:
1. The research plan section of the application should be shortened—a majority favored 15 pages,
2. Instructions to applicants and reviewers should be modified to emphasize impact,
3. Sections of the application should be more closely aligned with the review criteria.
A final recommendation was that changes to the application and to the peer review process should be made in a coordinated fashion. These recommendations will be presented to the NIH Extramural Activities Working Group soon.
Stay tuned on this one. I also agree that it is absolutely essential that the review approach be altered in concert with the shorter application because this is very much unlikely to happen spontaneously in study sections. If the review approach is unchanged (or unevenly changed) New Investigators are going to pay the price. As usual.