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Revamp for NIH grants

February 22, 2008 By Meredith M Wadman This article courtesy of Nature News.

US funding body receives recommendations for improving its peer-review process.

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Scientists applying to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) for grants could be accelerated through the painful peer-review process under recommendations proposed on 21 February aimed at overhauling the decades-old system.

Currently, a grant proposal can take 18 months to pass through the system, waiting in line behind older applications, most of which must go back and forth to the applicants for rewrites and amendments before approval. The new proposals aim to change this, at least for the best grants, by eliminating what they call the ‘special status’ of amended applications that often sees them funded before promising first-time proposals.

“It’s a system that rewards persistence over brilliance sometimes. And we really want to change that,” says NIH director Elias Zerhouni, whose advisory committee was presented with a 78-page draft report of recommendations.

Applicants would also no longer have to respond to reviewers’ comments as part of their second or third attempts with the same application. Nor would reviewers considering amended applications any longer see previous reviewers’ comments. That way, they “will not be biased in any way by any prior review”, says Lawrence Tabak, director of the NIH’s dental institute who co-chaired the two advisory panels charged with reviewing the system.

The panels — an internal working group of senior NIH officials and another of external scientists — were asked last June to come up with recommendations to ensure that the $29.3-billion agency funds “the best science, by the best scientists, with the least administrative burden”.

Other recommendations include substantially shortening the 25-page applications by minimizing the preliminary data and methodological detail required. They say that the NIH should consider reviewing early-career investigators in a separate pool against each other, rather than throwing them up against established veterans. And they advise that the poorest-quality applications (not just early-career ones) should be bluntly coded NRR — “not recommended for resubmission”.

In a bid to share finite riches, but one that seems bound to stir controversy among superstar grantees, the panels would like to see the NIH require principal investigators to commit at least 20% of their time to work on any single grant that is funded. For the vast majority of grantees, who receive one or two grants, that should be possible; for the 783 grantees awarded four or more grants, it will clearly have consequences.

Several scientists not involved in the process say they are pleased with the scope and broad-mindedness of the recommendations. “The focus on making the system work better is exactly right,” says David Korn, chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges and a former dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine. “And it’s really terrific that the NIH has decided to go at it very explicitly and very boldly.”

“It was pretty obvious that this was going to be a serious effort at improving the system, and I think they’ve come through,” says Katherine Wilson, a cell biologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, who testified to the external panel last summer on behalf of the American Society for Cell Biology.

Wilson did some back-of-the-envelope sums based on NIH numbers in the draft report (see graph). If every grantee with four or more NIH grants was reduced to holding two grants, she calculates, “that boosts the number of available grants by 1,852 — that’s 5%. It’s the difference between the current grim situation and making the system work again.”

Others contend that the recommendations, however enterprising, will not improve a situation that has seen NIH funding essentially frozen since 2003. Zerhouni will now consider the report and plans to assemble an implementation team in the next two months.

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