NIH peer review: An inside look

What are the most important questions and technologies that will hit your discipline within the next 10 years? Do you believe your NIH grant applications are aligned in the most appropriate study sections? Should grant reviewers serve as mentors to applicants? Last month, I sat down with Antonio Scarpa, director of the Center for Scientific Review, the gateway for all NIH grant applications, to discuss these and other questions. The occasion was the agency's final open house, during which biome

Alison McCook
Jan 9, 2008
What are the most important questions and technologies that will hit your discipline within the next 10 years? Do you believe your NIH grant applications are aligned in the most appropriate study sections? Should grant reviewers serve as mentors to applicants? Last month, I sat down with Antonio Scarpa, director of the Center for Scientific Review, the gateway for all NIH grant applications, to discuss these and other questions. The occasion was the agency's final open house, during which biomedical researchers flew from all corners of the country to Bethesda, Maryland, to linkurl:talk about;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54034/ how they think NIH peer review should change. There was a lot of discussion and debate, but little resolution. "Nothing has been decided," linkurl:Scarpa;http://cms.csr.nih.gov/AboutCSR/Welcome+to+CSR/ noted. "Should the study section essentially tell how to do the experiment, helping write an application? If you do that, it could be a completely different mechanism," he said. Also, should the...
ons are aligned in the most appropriate study sections? Should grant reviewers serve as mentors to applicants? Last month, I sat down with Antonio Scarpa, director of the Center for Scientific Review, the gateway for all NIH grant applications, to discuss these and other questions. The occasion was the agency's final open house, during which biomedical researchers flew from all corners of the country to Bethesda, Maryland, to linkurl:talk about;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54034/ how they think NIH peer review should change. There was a lot of discussion and debate, but little resolution. "Nothing has been decided," linkurl:Scarpa;http://cms.csr.nih.gov/AboutCSR/Welcome+to+CSR/ noted. "Should the study section essentially tell how to do the experiment, helping write an application? If you do that, it could be a completely different mechanism," he said. Also, should the agency place a cap on the number of applications one researcher can receive, to prevent monopolizations? One of Scarpa's goals is to remake peer review as a benefit, not a burden, for reviewers. This was lost five years ago, he says, when reviewers themselves began struggling for funding and spending months writing grants. At a minimum, reviewers dedicate weeks to combing through the thousands of applications that come in; asking them to do both that and maintain their research places a "stress on the system." Scarpa also addressed a startling statistic that recently emerged: The average age at which investigators receive their first independent NIH grant is 42.9 years. What concerns him more, however, are linkurl:projections released by the NIH;http://www.nih.gov/about/director/acd/12072007slides/zerhouni_acd_12072007.pdf in December of the age distribution of PIs in the coming years. The average age at obtaining grants will continue to rise, and PIs will apply for grants later and later in life, meaning scientists may soon be struggling well into their 50s and 60s. The CSR open house reviews are a separate process from the agency-wide NIH evaluation of peer review. You can click linkurl:here;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/54009/ to weigh in on changes the agency is considering, such as shortening applications. Last week, the NIH announced that peer reviewers linkurl:could submit grants;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54087/ outside of normal deadlines, to save them from having to simultaneously write and review applications. Click linkurl:here;http://images.the-scientist.com/supplementary/audio/11108.mp3 to listen to excerpts from my interview with Scarpa, in which he talks about his biggest concerns about NIH peer review, and the agency's influence on other health research budgets worldwide. Next week, we will publish an interview with Lawrence Taybak, who is spearheading the agency-wide review of NIH peer review.

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