In Science this week, Sudhansu K. Dey, PhD, suggests that the NIH Needs a Makeover to rectify a grant-making process that “has become tangled and inefficient”, mainly due to the lack of quality reviewers. Dey is not speaking as a jilted or jaded applicant, as his impressive NIH funding record demonstrates. Indeed, his concern seems to lie in the fact that his peers (in terms of funding-publications) are not the ones raising their hands to review applications, leaving SROs scrambling to fill study sections:
The Center for Scientific Review is desperate to recruit reviewers and is drafting individuals who have poor records of NIH grant awards or weak publishing histories. How can those individuals be trusted to review grants?
He suggests CSR make more use of videoconferencing to entice participation by busy established investigators, something Toni Scarpa favors as well. However, some reviewers have told me this works better for smaller groups discussing a manageable number of focused applications than for full chartered study sections covering a wide swath of science and funding mechanisms … and that they would prefer not to give up the face-to-face exchange – both to rigorously discuss applications and to network with peers.
Dey also briefly touches on the new scoring and critique system, suggesting he himself is not clear about whether the scores for individual review criteria “have any bearing on the overall score.” Having now seen a variety of summary statements from both discussed and triaged applications for different ICs and mechanisms, I myself wonder – upon reading the bulleted comments in relation to the scores given (criteria & impact) – how well these sync up in terms of the message the reviewers intend to convey. As I noted previously, CSR has a wealth of data to mine in the 20K RC1 reviews, at least in terms of whether the criteria scores match the comments made and send unambiguous feedback to the applicant.
Finally, Dey shares his Makeover advice on the next NIH Director, likely before Francis Collins’ appointment and rapid confirmation:
It is time to appoint a strong leader at NIH who has the understanding of a lifetime researcher and the authority to revolutionize the institution.
Collins is a “lifetime” researcher, perhaps, but one who has spent most of his career within rather than outside the NIH. Indeed, perhaps not surprisingly, Collins does not feel the intramural system is in need of change:
Asked about NIH’s intramural program, he said he is “resistant to the idea that [the program] is in need of some sort of dramatic redo” but is pondering whether to create a pool of intramural money that, like NIH’s Common Fund, could be used to fund crosscutting research quickly.
I suspect Dey was thinking in terms of a “lifetime” researcher who has weathered the turbulence of extramural funding and understands the reality of maintaining a lab dependent on the same. As an aside, Neil Greenspan, MD, PhD, commenting in The Scientist, wonders if Collins is out of touch with reality in a different regard, namely, the realistic potential of genomics in clinical practice. Both of these concerns are dwarfed, however, by the importance of the NIH Director’s ability to get Congress to cough up more money for the base appropriation. Given the current economic climate, Collins has a tough row to hoe here as well.