NIH R01s: No Longer the Best Science
Funding preferences penalize senior investigators, lower the quality of science.
For 60 years, the US National Institutes of Health R01 research grant mechanism has aimed at funding the highest-quality science to address the important contemporary issues.
That began to change in 2008, after NIH Director Elias Zerhouni issued the goal to “Fund the best science, by the best scientists…” 1 As a result, new guidelines, requirements, and considerations have been introduced. Unfortunately, these changes are antithetical and counterproductive to achieving Dr. Zerhouni’s stated goal.
The new process has transformed the R01 mechanism into a channel that provides funds for the training and development of new and early-stage investigators (ESIs).
New directives require that “NIH will support New Investigator R01 awards at success rates comparable to those for established investigators submitting new R01 applications.” 2 Even recipients of several already-existing NIH training and development grant programs qualify as ESIs for up to 10 years of such funding.Recently NIH required that “...applicants eligible for consideration as first-time R01 investigators...will be paid using an extended payline of the 22.0 percentile; compared to 16.0 percentile for others.” 3 These directives mean that funds for the best science by the best scientists will be diverted to fund lesser-quality research.
Moreover, the NIH policy introduces and justifies a form of age discrimination, which guarantees that grant proposals from senior investigators and longtime-funded investigators will be denied based on age, not on scientific merit. This policy will introduce, exacerbate, and even justify covert and overt discriminatory tendencies of reviewers, when it is essential to suppress such influences from a scientifically credible and objective peer review process.
As a senior investigator with grant funding for 48 years, and a past reviewer on several NIH and other agencies’ grant review panels, I vehemently object to this policy. I do so as an obligation to defend a 60-year history of advancements in science and medicine, which was based exclusively on funding the best science. As young investigators, I and my colleagues successfully competed with established researchers based on merit, without preferential treatment. NIH states that in recent years young investigators have not competed successfully with established investigators, hence the need to downgrade the quality of science funded through the R01 research grant mechanism. 2 But this neither recognizes nor addresses the cause(s) of the problem.
A major factor is that contemporary biomedical training programs fail to train young investigators to be scientists. They are trained to be myopic super-technologists, predominantly in areas of molecular biology and molecular technology. They lack the broad holistic background and capacity to integrate molecular events with cellular through organ-systems physiological and pathophysiological principles and relationships.
So, we have a striking contradiction. On the one hand, NIH identifies the critical importance of, and need for, “the most accomplished, broad-thinking, and creative scientists to serve on NIH study sections.” 1 On the other hand, those “most accomplished, broad-thinking, and creative scientists” are penalized in the grant review process because of their experience and success. Until this problem is addressed, the number of broadly trained and knowledgeable biomedical scientists will continue to decline, as will the quality of biomedical research. Then there will be no need for NIH to impose special considerations for young investigators—there will be no high-quality science and scientists to compete against.
Les Costello is Professor of Physiology and Endocrinology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Md.