NIH peer review: An inside look

What are the most important questions and technologies that will hit your discipline within the next 10 years? Do you believe your NIH grant applications are aligned in the most appropriate study sections? Should grant reviewers serve as mentors to applicants?

By | January 10, 2008

What are the most important questions and technologies that will hit your discipline within the next 10 years? Do you believe your NIH grant applications are aligned in the most appropriate study sections? Should grant reviewers serve as mentors to applicants? Last month, I sat down with Antonio Scarpa, director of the Center for Scientific Review, the gateway for all NIH grant applications, to discuss these and other questions. The occasion was the agency's final open house, during which biomedical researchers flew from all corners of the country to Bethesda, Maryland, to linkurl:talk about; how they think NIH peer review should change. There was a lot of discussion and debate, but little resolution. "Nothing has been decided," linkurl:Scarpa; noted. "Should the study section essentially tell how to do the experiment, helping write an application? If you do that, it could be a completely different mechanism," he said. Also, should the agency place a cap on the number of applications one researcher can receive, to prevent monopolizations? One of Scarpa's goals is to remake peer review as a benefit, not a burden, for reviewers. This was lost five years ago, he says, when reviewers themselves began struggling for funding and spending months writing grants. At a minimum, reviewers dedicate weeks to combing through the thousands of applications that come in; asking them to do both that and maintain their research places a "stress on the system." Scarpa also addressed a startling statistic that recently emerged: The average age at which investigators receive their first independent NIH grant is 42.9 years. What concerns him more, however, are linkurl:projections released by the NIH; in December of the age distribution of PIs in the coming years. The average age at obtaining grants will continue to rise, and PIs will apply for grants later and later in life, meaning scientists may soon be struggling well into their 50s and 60s. The CSR open house reviews are a separate process from the agency-wide NIH evaluation of peer review. You can click linkurl:here; to weigh in on changes the agency is considering, such as shortening applications. Last week, the NIH announced that peer reviewers linkurl:could submit grants; outside of normal deadlines, to save them from having to simultaneously write and review applications. Click linkurl:here; to listen to excerpts from my interview with Scarpa, in which he talks about his biggest concerns about NIH peer review, and the agency's influence on other health research budgets worldwide. Next week, we will publish an interview with Lawrence Taybak, who is spearheading the agency-wide review of NIH peer review.


Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 13

January 11, 2008

I am not sure how many will agree on this one, but I do think that limiting a number of grants a PI can have at one time is a good way to allow new PIs to enter the grant zone. That would take care not only of money issue but also of the reviewer issue as then the pool of eligible reviewers would increase. Having more SRAs and POs would also help as often time they are the initial and follow-up contacts respectively, for the applicant. What happened to the SRA Internship Program?
Avatar of: tian xia

tian xia

Posts: 34

January 11, 2008

I know it is hard, but this is the first time I heard "will be struggling well into their 50s and 60s". This is useful info. A bit late to change course and too early to tell my child about that.
Avatar of: Andras Pellionisz

Andras Pellionisz

Posts: 11

January 11, 2008

"A life decoded" by Venter should be "required reading" for those who wonder if NIH (really, the USA science establishment) is in need of some re-alignment, not unlike how the US quickly and effectively responded to the global threat posed by the "Sputnik" half a Century ago.\n\nPages 245 and 255 recall almost with a photographic memory of his horrors. If anyone, he should know. \n\nAs "routine" scientist in his early years he had no problem obtaining NIH grants, for his (at that time) mediocre performance. Later, he accumulated an abundance of "inside information" as he personally worked for NIH. \n\nAs soon as his manifold talents catapulted him way above the crowd, his NIH application (also, Leroy Hood's application, etc) was not only rejected, but declared by mediocre scientists as "impossible". (He did the proposed work in a few months).\n\nAnother colossal problem is, that US R&D used to dominate the global effort. Thus, US taxpayer dollars could be spent freely, with all government sponsored research, by law, made public (for the whole World). The USA could "brain drain" those who wanted a "free lunch" to take home to their country. \n\nToday, the tide turned to the opposite. Ph.D. students flock to the US, get all the knowledge and know how (occasionally, IP) free (plus they earn some money doing it) - and the USA taxpayers' investment finds its way quickly to flow back to their country of origin.\n\nIs the "business as usual" good for the USA?\n\nDr. Andras J. Pellionisz
Avatar of: Sergio Stagnaro

Sergio Stagnaro

Posts: 59

January 14, 2008

Based on personal 51-year-long researcher life in the field of physical semeiotics (, although I didn't need any grant to conduct my studies, really difficult to obtain in my country,"underdevelopped" as scientific research is concerned, the most ostacle to scientific advances is mainly lying in the mean-age behaviour of the establishement, which care principally to preserve interest of other subjects, different from common population. For instance, a decade ago I discovered and illustrated biophysical-semeiotic constitutions, including the diabetic one, and disorder inherited real risk, recognizable quickly and quantitatively at the bedside, i.e, with the aid of a stethoscope (ibidem). Well! Despites diabetic constitution is posted in famous peer-reviews websites (, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, BioMedCardiovascular Diseases, Europ. Journ. Clin Nutrition, a.s.o.)and published in a lot of papers (14 Medline) as N.Engl.Journ.Med. as well as a Cyber Lecture in medical authority (SSN) has been overlooking it, so that blood glucose examination continuously is performed to ALL individuals, even not involved by diabetic constitution.As a consequence, we spent uselessly money, bringing about avoidable anxious situations:e.,g., searching serum ONCOLOGICAL biomarkers in individuals without Oncological Terrain (ibidem). Regarding some researches, we need particularly farsighted and honest Medical Authorities and Health Minister, rather than grant, which obviously are of primary importance in other field researches.

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