Monday, September 28, 2009

What happened to the merit sytem in NIH peer review?

There was an article in the New York Times on 22 September by Gardner Harris entitled “Debate flaring over Grants research”.It was based on a recently released report by the GAO on how NIH manages its grant program.

The essence of the NYTs articcle was whether or not NIH grants administrators are right to reach down to “make exceptions “to fund grants with worse scores, to support new young investigators. They say the average age of investigators has risen from 35 in 1980 to 41today, so such steps are necessary. The American Cancer Society goes even further. Anyone over the age of 45 need not apply.

 What happened to the merit system? If your goal is to find new knowledge that leads to the eradication of disease shouldn’t we be funding the best and the brightest whatever their age?

Harris says “ There has been a growing chorus of complaints over the years that the agency's scientific review process is deficient-that is fails to finance high risk research; that projects must effectively be half done before financing is approved; that cliques control the process; and that reviewers are rarely the field’s leading lights”.

Anyone involved in the NIH grant system knows all these complaints are true. I speak from experience; I ran the largest chunk of that grant program at the NCI for 15 years.

The essence of the problem is that universities are addicted to Ro-1 grants. The grant system has become an entitlement program. Without a Ro-1 grant it is difficult for an investigator to attain tenure. What has surprised me, even shocked me, and is that what an investigator does with those grants is often secondary to the fact that they got them. Supporting high-risk research is not the major goal.
The grant peer review process has become the major arbiter of tenure. And incumbents do have an unfair advantage. Peer review committees, each made up of grantees, give the edge to established investigators like themselves. And, scientists will always admit to other scientists, (but not in public) that they don’t submit their best and newest ideas in a grant but ideas that have some data to support them- . It’s a bit of grantsmanship.

Left to their own devices, young investigators do well on their own. Their ideas are often fresh and, in a purely merit system, they can out compete an incumbent. But the way the system is now constructed they are at a disadvantage but it is a disadvantage of NIH’s own making.

The NIH distorts the system even further. It decries “targeted research” but it regularly influences the research process by issuing Request for Applications in specific (targeted) areas with set aside funds. The areas selected are what the Congress or some NIH staffer, or a board of advisors, thinks is the best way to spend grants monies. I have watched young investigators change their research interest not because they thought an RFA identified an interesting area but because they needed to follow pools of money to get a grant. So much for NIH's storied primacy of “investigator initiated research”.

And more gamesmanship. To keep Congress anxious about how many grants are funded each year NIH artificially keeps the percentage of approved grants funded very low. NIH scores grants on a system of 1 to 5 with one being the best and 5 the worst score. A grant can also be disapproved. Few ever are. Many are , however, given scores of 3, 4 or 5 that indicate they shouldn’t be funded even if the investigator is young and money is available. Or expressed another way, no matter how much money we had, we could find better ways of spending it than funding grants with bad scores. Instead of funding only 21 % of all approved applications, many of which shouldn't be funded,  we are more often funding 40 to 50 % of the good applications. Not too bad really. Reaching down could get you into bad territory.
It would be interesting if data were available on the age distribution of the PI's of grants that score better than 2 compared to those that score worse than 2.

It is in the best interests of both universities and the NIH to leave the system as is. But, NIH has so distorted the peer review process that it is faced with dilemmas like funding young investigators just because they are young not because of the merit of their ideas. The grant system has become an end in itself instead of a means to an end.

A Churchill quote about Democracy is often paraphrased to defend the current system as “the worst system ever invented except for every other system”. This may be true for democracy but not the NIH peer review system.

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