The Great Zerhouni’s Parting Gift to New Investigators

Before leaving office, The Great Zerhouni left in place a policy to protect new investigator award quotas, as covered in Science:

Instead of relying solely on peer review to apportion grants, he set a floor–a numerical quota–for the number of awards made to new investigators in 2007 and 2008.

Last week on his final day as director, Zerhouni made this a formal NIH policy. He hopes his successors will keep it: “I think anybody who thinks this is not the number-one issue in American science probably doesn’t understand the long-term issues,” he says. The notice states that NIH “intends to support new investigators at success rates comparable to those for established investigators submitting new applications.” In 2009, that will mean at least 1650 awards to new investigators for R01s, NIH’s most common research grant.

… Although some scientists may see this as a kind of affirmative action, Zerhouni says it is not. To him, it is simply “leveling the playing field” by correcting peer reviewers’ bias against the young.

Science notes that this, um, redistribution of the wealth meant that NINDS, for example, funded only 9-10% of established PIs versus 25% of new investigators with comparable scores.

In a very interesting companion piece entitled The Graying of NIH Research (Science interviewed 20 researchers aged 70+), Roger Unger, 84, who maintains an NIH-funded lab at UT Southwestern Medical Center, says “I couldn’t agree more that we have to bring down the age of investigators.”

Among other observations made by these genuinely senior investigators was the shift in peer review emphasis:

One strong theme–a sense that the review process was more interested in originality in the past–emerged in comments from this generation of scientists who applied for their first grants in the 1960s or earlier, often in their 20s or early 30s. It was a different game, they say. Not only did NIH have plenty of money to go around, but peer reviewers wanted ideas, not preliminary data.

Of course, this shift back to novel ideas represents part of the priority for ongoing enhancements in NIH peer review. We’ll see.

In light of the recent sharp declines in foundation and corporate funding available for research (Science on top of this as well), some set-asides for hot new investigators will be even more important than ever.

Farewell, Great Zerhouni.

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