Revising the NIH Grant Review Process

With a provocative suggestion, Mike the Mad Biologist proposed the idea of Top-down NIH leadership to determine where research funding should be allocated.

The point is that, as DrugMonkey noted, it’s too difficult for reviewers or program officers to reject proposals based on their unsuitability for the goals of NIH, since these goals, even within certain areas, are too broadly defined. My experience has been that with very targeted calls for proposals, there are far fewer proposals submitted, and it’s much easier to flat out reject them because many proposals are not germane to the funding objectives. This means that NIH program officers have to be far more active in defining specific research objectives than they have been–to a considerable extent, NIH is placing this responsibility on reviewers who often lack knowledge of the larger institutional objectives. That needs to be changed.

Drug Monkey also addresses the problem of NIH grant reviewers who focus too much on grantsmanship.

The reason is that this policy does nothing about the tendency of reviewers to focus on grantsmanship issues as an easy triage mechanism, instead of taking the “fish or cut bait” hard look at the genuinely new application the first time. The primary stage of review is the main driver here. The ameliorative measures should have accounted for the source of the problem and tried to address it more directly. The single amendment limit doesn’t do this.

One of the ways the original goal [“to ensure earlier funding of high-quality applications and improve efficiencies in the peer review system”] could be accomplished would be through reviewer education and instruction. Put the data figures in front of all reviewers and say “Bad dog! Stop deifying revision status and grantsmanship. Focus on the underlying science. What will really be accomplished through the review process- changes in the proposal only? or actual changes in the resulting science?”

I don’t think too many people will agree with Mike on this one – as one commenter notes, “I could easily list multiple top-down NIH programs under way right now – spending hundreds of millions of NIH money – that are mostly or completely wasteful.”

And while Drug Monkey’s suggestion of “reviewer education and instruction” is much needed, I would guess that it also won’t completely address the problem that reviewers may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of grant applications.

Not that I have a better suggestion. It’s a tough problem, which Drug Monkey puts his finger on in quoting the NIH press release on changes in revision policy:

NIH analysis indicates that an increasing number of meritorious applicants that were ultimately funded had to resubmit their applications multiple times which increased burden on applicants and reviewers alike. … data reveals a reduction in the number of awards made to original applications. An increasing number of projects were funded only after one or more resubmissions. This trend has been increasing over recent years.

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