I applaud NIH's examination of the peer review process (The Scientist, August 8, page 1) and the agency's attempt at procedural reforms aimed at funding the best possible science. At bottom, much of the concern with the peer-review system at NIH, as with professional journals, lies in the inescapable fact that the same small pool of experts serves as both reviewer and reviewee for an extended time in many domains, facilitating two inappropriate practices—backslapping and backbiting. The small-pond problem can be averted by asking scientists to review proposals in domains adjacent to their own, but often only at the cost of a loss of expertise.
The plan to look at NIH peer review's "rate of failure" by a retrospective examination of scientific advances and their funding will help identify projects that typically succeeded in obtaining funding elsewhere. However, the study cannot estimate the extent of review failure that might...
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