Give Young Scientists a Break

I don’t know if I could have even started my career in today’s funding environment.

There is only a rough correlation between the quality of the science in an application and the priority score.

There has been much concern about the impact of tight funding on the careers of young scientists. When only a small percentage of grants are approved, even the smallest problem or error with an application can push it out of the funding range. Unfortunately, the relative lack of grant-writing skills by new investigators often has this effect. To avoid a situation where only experienced investigators with polished writing skills are funded, the National Institutes of Health has instituted a more generous ranking scale for new investigators. Not surprisingly, some senior investigators have protested, calling it reverse discrimination. I say that their anger is misplaced. New investigators do deserve a break.


I remember the first grant I wrote as a young assistant professor more than 25 years ago. It was an incredibly dense, 45-page tome. This was before NIH had page limits for grants, which were probably instituted after program officers saw my application. I had no real idea how to write a good application and just included all of my best ideas with lots of details so that the reviewers would know how smart I was. Only later, when I started reviewing applications myself and had to wade through a couple of dense, technical proposals, did I realize the pain that I had inflicted. I found myself far more impressed by scientists who could convey a complex idea in a few words than those who tried to overwhelm me with detail. Lesson one in grantsmanship.

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Deputy Editor Alison McCook moderates a debate about policies at the National Institutes of Health designed to increase success rates on grant applications submitted by young investigators. Discussing the issue are columnist and NIH-funded biologist Steven Wiley and Richard Gallagher, editor of a recent opinion from Les Costello, who argued that current policies discriminate against senior scientists.

I had submitted my grant to three different agencies: the National Science Foundation, the NIH, and the American Cancer Society. When the reviews came back months later, I found that I had scored a #2 ranking from NSF, a 34% score with NIH, and an outright rejection from the ACS. So depending on the study section, my science was either outstanding, mediocre, or terrible. Believe it or not, the NIH actually funded the proposal even though it had a 34% priority score. I would argue that my grant still represented excellent science—I published a dozen papers in top journals from that small first grant.

I don’t know if I could have even started my career in today’s funding environment, and that gives me pause. Most of the scientists I know had similar difficulties with grant writing when they were young. In the past, this has caused reviewers to display a varying degree of favoritism towards grants from new investigators. The slight scoring advantage the NIH is providing to new investigators (see p. 25) is a way to make this consistent and fair, and to ensure that as experienced investigators retire, we have well-trained people to take their place.

Of course, senior-level investigators have their own set of advantages in the review process, including their track record and experienced grantsmanship. The investigators who are perhaps at the biggest disadvantage are mid-career scientists, who have neither a big reputation nor the forgiveness of youth to see them through.

Unfortunately, the reason why we argue so passionately over the relative merits and fairness of scoring systems is not because we are concerned about the absolutely best science being funded. It is because we worry about our jobs and careers. NIH has been forced to consider career issues in their funding decisions because many universities and research institutes have abandoned their responsibilities. Faulting NIH for trying to support careers and maintain scientific diversity seems misplaced to me. We should all be trying to work together to maintain the fragile research community, not just our own funding levels.

Steven Wiley is Lead Biologist for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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