Last week, the NIH announced pilot program in which IC Councils will conduct an extra review of competitively scored applications from PIs who currently receive $1.5M or more per year in total costs to determine if additional funds should be awarded (this roughly matches the long-standing NIGMS strategy of giving extra scrutiny to PIs receiving $750K or more in direct costs, assuming an average F&A rate of ~50%). The NIH is quick to note that this Special Council Review (SCR) does not represent a funding cap policy and that “some of the most productive investigators are leading significant research teams and programs that may require over $1.5 million/year of NIH awards to be sustained … [and] that some types of research, for example large complex clinical trials, may commonly trigger this review but may also be recommended for funding.” RFAs and big P program applications won’t receive extra review, and with multiple PI/PD submissions, each of the PIs would need to exceed the $1.5M threshold. This pilot effort was inspired by the discussion on how the NIH can best manage its limited resources … the interactive slide on RPG funding per PI indicates that 6% of PIs receive $1.5M or more per year, representing 28% of the RPG budget.
This week, Science reported on the Big Pitch experiment at the NSF (Molecular and Cellular Biosciences Division) in which two different review panels reviewed two different presentations of the same research. One panel received the full traditional proposals, while the other assessed anonymous 2-page summaries that focused on the underlying concept rather than experimental detail. Only 3 out of 55 proposals (in this pilot, on climate change) were rated highly by both review groups, and 2 of these were funded; altogether, the NSF funded 3 projects selected exclusively through the 2-p proposal and 5 through the full proposal reviews.
The experience of one of the anonymous 2-p awardees might ring true with many struggling PIs:
Shirley Taylor, an awardee during the evolution round of the Big Pitch, says a comparison of the reviews she got on the two versions of her proposal convinced her that anonymity had worked in her favor. An associate professor of microbiology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Taylor had failed twice to win funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the role of an enzyme in modifying mitochondrial DNA.
Both times, she says, reviewers questioned the validity of her preliminary results because she had few publications to her credit. Some reviews of her full proposal to NSF expressed the same concern. Without a biographical sketch, Taylor says, reviewers of the anonymous proposal could “focus on the novelty of the science, and this is what allowed my proposal to be funded.”
The Big Pitch format could “remove bias and allow better support of smaller, innovative research groups that otherwise might be overlooked,” Taylor adds. “The current system is definitely a ‘buddy system’ where it’s not what you know but who you know, where you work, and where you publish. And the rich get richer.”
A second round of Big Pitch (evolution proposals) had similar results, and the NSF is considering adding another arm to the experiment in which a third panel of reviewers receive both the short proposal and an abbreviated biosketch of the PI. They might also consider 4 rather than 2 pages for the concept proposal … and, apart from the anonymous review experiment, the MCB Division has limited the number of proposals a PI can submit, while Integrative Organismal Systems and Environmental Biology have implemented a pre-proposal policy (with submission of full proposals invited).
Small steps to address perceived inequity in funding decisions … looking forward to even more innovative, paradigm-shifting proposals.