Mike the Mad Biologist

What was Italy thinking? And, for that matter, NIH? From Science:

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is gearing up to begin a review of about 1,000 biomedical research grant applications for the Italian government, an experimental collaboration that comes at an inconvenient time for the US funding agency.

The outsourcing agreement was made last year at the request of Ferruccio Fazio, now Italy’s deputy minister for health in the welfare ministry, who is looking to improve the department’s peer-review system for awarding competitive research grants…

Most biomedical research funds in Italy are dispensed through government appropriations to institutions, not through a competitive grant system. Many of the national peer-review systems that do exist, and which work in response to irregular funding calls, are plagued by accusations of conflicts of interest among a small pool of reviewers.

“We want to change the culture. We need a peer-review process that is more transparent, and less prone to suspicions of bias,” says Giovanni Lucignani, a diagnostic-imaging specialist at the University of Milan.

It will be interesting to see how this changes Italian science. But I don’t think the Italians know what they’re getting into. And neither did the NIH:

“We took on this project before the Recovery Act was passed, and we never would have taken on the Italian applications if we had known what our workload would be now,” says Antonio Scarpa, director of the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review. “Nonetheless, we are honoured to assist the Italians.” It is the first time the NIH has provided systematic technical support for another country’s grant applications, he says.

I’ve been asked to review grants for other countries’ peer review boards. But this is weird.

Comments

  1. #1 Janne
    June 21, 2009

    Overall, that’s not a bad idea though. We’re all getting pretty specialized, and there’s a real, continuing risk that direct competitors in a small subspeciality get to review and each others applications – or that bosom buddies get to do so. The risk is especially great in smaller countries of course, but it’s certainly there anywhere.

    It could be a real benefit if this kind of grant swapping was made a normal, readily available option whenever it’s difficult to convene a panel without conflict of interest. Could have some kind of reciprocal agreement between all the large groups, such as the US/Canada, Europe, Japan and so on to optionally handle each others’ applications as a matter of course. Send, say, 5% at random for outside review to get an ongoing benchmark, and any review board or agency can request outside review of any application if they feel it’s warranted for any reason.

  2. #2 Giovanni Lucignani
    June 22, 2009

    Janne got it right. this is why we are doing it. It is a matter of specificity first and conflict of interest second. In any field those that work in that field know each other and we end up reviewing our colleagues, with possible conflicts, simply because of limited resources. Moreover we are so used to our research that obsolescence is not spotted. Furthermore new original research ideas are not promptly identified. Furthermore as projects may be so specialistic one may not be able to find the necessary expertise in a small community. Thus when asking for suggestions on how to improve the system of peer-review we found that we could get some help from someone that examines thousands applications with a vast experience. It was just a great opportunity to break with the system. This will not change Italian science at once so we may not be able to see extraordinary changes in a short term, but we really need a change, and we cannot get all the necessary help from within to start.