Last year, I was a reviewer of proposals to a newly created NIH program, the New Innovator Award. Its goal was to address a frequent criticism – that peer review is biased against innovation – and to fund exceptionally innovative, high–impact research from new investigators. To encourage the submission of innovative ideas, the agency didn't require preliminary data. We received nearly 2,200 applications, but awarded only 30, for a success rate of <1.4%. This suggests either that there are many unfunded innovative ideas out there, or that the ability to submit a proposal without preliminary data was irresistible.

Our mandate was to evaluate the importance of the proposed problems, the innovativeness of the approaches, and the investigator qualifications. Almost all the problems were important, and many approaches seemed quite innovative; however, ranking the degree of innovation was difficult. Was developing a microfluidics device to automatically measure Caenorhabditis elegans more innovative...

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