NIH tries, again, to keep grant reviewers from “too much money” bias

March 23, 2021

The recent NOT-OD-21-073 Upcoming Changes to the Biographical Sketch and Other Support Format Page for Due Dates on or after May 25, 2021 indicates one planned change to the Biosketch which is both amusing and of considerable interest to us “process of NIH” fans.

For the non-Fellowship Biosketch, Section D. has been removed. … As applicable, all applicants may include details on ongoing and completed research projects from the past three years that they want to draw attention to within the personal statement, Section A.

Section D is “Additional Information: Research Support and/or Scholastic Performance“. The prior set of instructions read:

List ongoing and completed research projects from the past three years that you want to draw attention to. Briefly indicate the overall goals of the projects and your responsibilities. Do not include the number of person months or direct costs.

And if the part about “want to draw attention to” was not clear enough they also added:

Do not confuse “Research Support” with “Other Support.” Other Support information is not collected at the time of application submission.”

Don’t answer yet, there’s more!

Research Support: As part of the Biosketch section of the application, “Research Support” highlights your accomplishments, and those of your colleagues, as scientists. This information will be used by the reviewers in the assessment of each your qualifications for a specific role in the proposed project, as well as to evaluate the overall qualifications of the research team.

This is one of those areas where the NIH intent has been fought bitterly by the culture of peer review, in my experience (meaning in my ~two decades of being an applicant and slightly less time as a reviewer). These policy positions, instructions, etc and the segregation of the dollars and all total research funding into the Other Support documentation make it very clear to the naive reader that the NIH does not want reviewers contaminating their assessment of the merit of a proposal with their own ideas about whether the PI (or other investigators) have too much other funding. They do not want this at all. It is VERY clear and this new update to the Biosketch enhances this by deleting any obligatory spot where funding information seemingly has to go.

But they are paddling upstream in a rushing, spring flood, rapids Cat V river. Good luck, say I.

Whenever this has come up, I think I’ve usually reiterated the reasons why a person might be motivated to omit certain funding from their Biosketch. Perhaps you had an unfortunate period of funding that was simply not very productive for any of a thousand reasons. Perhaps you do have what looks to some eyes like “too much funding” for your age, tenure, institution type, sex or race. Or for your overall productivity level. Perhaps you have some funding that looks like it might overlap with the current proposal. Or maybe even funding from some source that some folks might find controversial. The NIH has always (i.e. during my time in the system) endorsed your ability to do so and the notion that these consideration should not influence the assessment of merit.

I have also, I hope consistently, warned folks not to ever, ever try to omit funding (within the past three years) from their Biosketch, particularly if it can be found in any way on the internet. This includes those foundation sites bragging about their awards, your own lab website and your institutional PR game which put out a brag on you. The reason is that reviewers just can’t help themselves. You know this. How many discussions have we had on science blogs and now science twitter that revolve around “solutions” to NIH funding stresses that boil down to “those guys over there have too much money and if we just limit them, all will be better”? Scores.

Believe me, all the attitudes and biases that come out in our little chats also are present in the heads of study section members. We have all sorts of ideas about who “deserves” funding. Sometimes these notions emerge during study section discussion or in the comments. Yeah, reviewers know they aren’t supposed to be judging this so it often come up obliquely. Amount of time committed to this project. Productivity, either in general or associated with specific other awards. Even ones that have nothing to do with the current proposal.

My most hilariously vicious personal attack summary statement critique ever was clearly motivated by the notion that I had “too much money”. One of the more disgusting aspects of what this person did was to assume incorrectly that I had a tap on resources associated with a Center in my department. Despite no indication anywhere that I had access to substantial funds from that source. A long time later I also grasped an even more hilarious part of this. The Center in question was basically a NIH funded Center with minimal other dollars involved. However, this Center has what appear to be peer Centers elsewhere that are different beasts entirely. These are Centers that have a huge non-federal warchest involving more local income and an endowment built over decades. With incomes that put R21 and even R01 money into individual laboratories that are involved in the Center. There was no evidence anywhere that I had these sorts of covert resources, and I did not. Yet this reviewer felt fully comfortable teeing off on my for “productivity” in a way that was tied to the assumption I had more resources than were represented by my NIH grants.

Note that I am not saying many other reviews of my grant applications have not been contaminated by notions that I have “too much”. At times I am certain they were. Based on my age at first. Based on my institution and job type, certainly. And on perceptions of my productivity, of course. And now in the post-Hoppe analysis….on my race? Who the fuck knows. Probably.

But the evidence is not usually clear.

What IS clear is that reviewers, who are your peers with the same attitudes they express around the water cooler, on average have strong notions about whether PIs “deserve” more funding based on the funding they currently have and have had in the past.

NIH is asking, yet again, for reviewers to please stop doing this. To please stop assessing merit in a way that is contaminated by other funding.

I look forward with fascination to see if NIH can managed to get this ship turned around with this latest gambit.

The very first evidence will be to monitor Biosketches in review to see if our peers are sticking with the old dictum of “for God’s sake don’t look like you are hiding anything” or if they will take the leap of faith that the new rules will be followed in spirit and nobody will go snooping around on RePORTER and Google to see if the PI has “too much funding”.

2 Responses to “NIH tries, again, to keep grant reviewers from “too much money” bias”

  1. Nopety Nope Says:

    Honestly, I see this from a different perspective entirely: In my experience, it’s far more common to see people using “a good track record of funding” to justify scoring a poor grant favorably than what you describe: people penalizing an investigator for having too much funding. Tomato, tomato I guess…

    Frankly, until NIH figures out how to do double-blind proposal assessment (at least of the innovation/significance/approach), these kinds of issues will continue.


  2. […] notable of which was the removal of the list of Research Support that was previously in Section D. I pointed out in a prior post that I suspect this was supposed to be an attempt to break a specific culture of peer review. One […]


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