Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Grants from the NIH

It is interesting that as I prepare for the end of a meeting at NIH, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health newsfeed yesterday highlighted an article on how the NIH has been awarding grants  The key message from this article is that 19 percent of grants awarded were 'not in rank order' assigned by the scientific review committee and that half of the exceptions to the ordering that would be suggested by the scientific review committee were made for "new investigators".

What does this mean?  The NIH has finite funds for research.  These have to be allocated in some way.  Scientists write proposals for research.  Review committees of experts in the field review proposals and assign scores. The scores are not like in school where if you get a 90 or above you have an A.  The scores are all relative.  With grants, it is still the case that a 99 is better than a 98, but the key is how the studies "line up" rather than having an "absolute cutoff" for funding.  So, a 90 or higher would not guarantee funding.  Some years you'd need a 92--other years an 88.  It depends on the budget the NIH has, the budget for each grant, and the number of grants submitted.

The public policy question is whether all grants should be awarded based on their rank order, assuming that rank order implies how meritorious the proposals are, or whether there should be room for exceptions.  Then, if there is room for exceptions, should there be rules for making those exceptions?

There are few rules for the exceptions at the moment, other than the notion that the grants should still represent good science.  The question is whether the scores that are given really tell us anything about the science.  Having served on a scientific review committee, I can say that the scores are only partly about the science.  They also reflect the quality of the research team and that is inherently subjective.  A new investigator could "work the system" by making sure that he or she knows likely reviewers and knows those within NIH to be considered more favorably.  In some ways that is just human nature on the part of the reviewers and decision makers within NIH.  The question is whether human nature or something more objective should guide resource allocation.  Even if we'd desire something "more objective" it is not clear how we'd arrange that.

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