I’ve been tagged by Hope for Pandora (who was tagged by DrugMonkey, who was tagged by Writedit) in a blog meme regarding the NIH’s request for feedback on its peer review system. I’m not huge into these blog memes, so I’m not going to pass this along to seven others, but I will share a few thoughts.
Being only in the second year of my Ph.D. (and studying overseas), I haven’t applied for an NIH grant before, so I’m not intimately familiar with the NIH’s peer review system and can’t offer much in the way of constructive criticism there. I can, however, speak generally about some of the major issues facing the NIH from my perspective, and some of these will be related to the areas in which the NIH is currently soliciting feedback.
Noting that the most significant hurdle facing the NIH is a general dearth of funding shouldn’t be news to anyone, especially anyone at the NIH. This is the root of most of the problems currently plaguing the agency, though, so it cannot be emphasized enough. In short, the situation is dire. There are too many grant applicants and not enough grant dollars to go around. See this post for more details. NIH R01research grant application success rates have plummeted since 2001, due to both increasing numbers of applicants and decreasing funds. The onus here is on Congress and President Bush, neither of which has done anything significant to address this issue.
Due to these financial constraints, the NIH now has to much more carefully manage its once healthier budget. In 2003, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni laid out the new NIH Roadmap, a set of goals for the NIH to help it more rapidly and cohesively advance biomedical research in the US. In theory, such a project is a great idea, as biomedical research today suffers to an extent from an overload of disconnected research findings. Operating under the current budget constraints, though, means that dedicating more resources to a set of chosen goals will take away much needed resources form other areas. The Roadmap goals focus too much on translational medical research and not enough on basic research. The NIH has an outstanding reputation for its support of basic research, and that should be its primary focus. The NIH, of course, also has a duty to translational research, but this is an area where industry can contribute as well. If it has to pick and choose, the NIH should focus more on the areas where its strengths lie and where it has a more unique ability to make a difference.
Along these same lines, the nation as a whole has been devoting enormous resources post-9/11 to biodefense at the expense of other areas. I won’t argue that anthrax isn’t a little sexier than cell motility, on the surface at least, but despite the hype, biodefense and bioterrorism are still niche areas and shouldn’t be given precedence over other more relevant lines of research.
Young investigators are hit hardest by tightening budgets, as remaining grants are more likely to go to more established investigators. Fortunately, the NIH has an extensive New Investigators Program (including the Pathway to Independence award and special consideration for R01 grants) to counteract this. As budget constraints grow, these programs should be protected and expanded at a higher priority than the general pool. Otherwise, young scientists will be squeezed out completely.
The final point I’ll raise in unrelated to these others. As the largest supporter of biomedical research in the US, the NIH has a special obligation to make sure that its (taxpayer funded!) research is published in the public domain. Since May 2005, the NIH has had an optional open access program that revolves around PubMed Central. Specifically, the NIH “requests and strongly encourages all investigators to make their NIH-funded peer-reviewed, author’s final manuscript available to other researchers and the public through the NIH National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) PubMed Central (PMC) immediately after the final date of journal publication.” This, however, hasn’t gone so smoothly, and as I noted before, pervasive misunderstandings of the policy, noncompliance, and a general lack of participation have been observed. These problems seem to stem largely from the fact that providing an open access copy of research articles is not mandatory. A bill was introduced last year (S. 2695, the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006) to require free public access to most government-funded research (including research funded by the NIH), but it did not progress through the Senate. Mandatory public access should be the policy for any publications stemming from NIH grants, whether or not it requires an act of Congress.
Here are the original instructions from Hope for Pandora:
The NIH is seeking comments regarding NIH?s support of the biomedical and behavioral research, including peer review, with the goal of examining the current system to optimize its efficiency and effectiveness. The NIH is especially interested in creative suggestions, even if they involve radical changes to the current approach. Responses will be accepted until August 17, 2007 online or via e-mail (PeerReviewRFI@mail.nih.gov). I hope that all of you reading this – whether you are a grant recipient, a student or a taxpayer – will offer advice to Uncle Sam.
I made this post as part of a pyramid meme initiated by Writedit and sent to me by DrugMonkey, both individuals who know more about the nitty-gritty of NIH grants than myself. If you blog and want to tag yourself to write about this, here are 4 rules:
2. Include the list of six topics the NIH wants information about.
- Challenges of NIH System of Research Support
Please describe any specific challenges presented by NIH?s support of biomedical and behavioral research such as the current array of grant mechanisms, number of grants awarded per investigator, and the duration of grants.
- Challenges of NIH Peer Review Process
Please describe any specific challenges presented by the current peer review process at NIH.
- Solutions to Challenges
Please concisely describe specific approaches or concepts that would address any of the above challenges, even if it involves a radical change to the current approach.
- Core Values of NIH Peer Review Process
Please describe the core values of NIH peer review that must be maintained or enhanced.
- Peer Review Criteria and Scoring
Are the appropriate criteria and scoring procedures being used by NIH to evaluate applications during peer review? If not, are there changes in either that you would recommend?
- Career Pathways
Is the current peer review process for investigators at specific stages in their career appropriate? If not, what changes would you recommend?
3. Comment on one or more of these issues.
4. Decide who the next seven vectors will be for this meme.