NIH Continues to Support the Best Science through R01s

A response to accusations that the agency is biased against senior scientists

The September issue of The Scientist included an opinion piece called “NIH R01s: No Longer the Best Science” by Dr. Les Costello.1 In that article, Dr. Costello expressed concerns about NIH policies2 related to new investigators, suggesting that they offer an unfair advantage for new applicants over established investigators. Because of these concerns, we felt the need to provide some context around issues associated with new investigators and why we believe the flow of new talent is essential for the maintenance of a productive scientific enterprise.

When Dr. Costello received his first traditional NIH research grant (R01) in 1963, success rates were near 58 percent3 and 35 percent of the competing R01s went to first-time recipients.4 Data published by the NIH and available on the...

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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.

In 2009, the NIH introduced a variant of this policy to accommodate better the differences in application assignments to the NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs). Under this new policy, ICs were encouraged to maintain approximately equal success rates on applications describing new research projects (type 1) from either new or established investigators. This approach was designed to level the playing field for new and experienced investigators on type 1 applications. Success rates on competing continuation applications (type 2) were not affected and continued to provide stability for successful projects led by established investigators. The new policy included two additional features. The first involved clustering applications from new investigators during peer review to facilitate the identification of the most meritorious applications from researchers at all stages in their careers. The second involved identifying Early Stage Investigators (ESIs) or those New Investigators within ten years of their terminal research degree or the completion of their medical residency. The ESI elements of the policy provide incentives to encourage the reduction of the excessively long periods of training required to enter faculty ranks and apply for NIH research support. This policy is age-independent and is based on the duration of time since completing medical residency or the terminal research degree. In addition, breaks in training associated with family care, illness, or extended periods of clinical training can justify an extension of the ESI period.7

We find no evidence that scientists who enter the pool of NIH-funded researchers today are less accomplished than those who took similar positions in 1963. Reduced success rates and the observed elongation of the training period suggest that new entrants may be better prepared to contribute than in the past. The NIH will continue to monitor the replenishment of the nation’s scientific leadership and we welcome input from the research community that we serve.

Walter T. Schaffer, Ph.D., is Senior Advisor for Extramural Research at the NIH. Sally J. Rockey, Ph.D., is Deputy Director for Extramural Research at the NIH.

Editor's note: When originally posted, this story contained the incorrect subhed. This has been fixed.

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