The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has responded to a petition from thousands of unhappy extramural researchers, complaining about a two-year-old policy that prohibits researchers from resubmitting rejected grant proposals more than once.
The response is not likley to satisfy the petitioners. In this letter, sent late yesterday to Robert Benezra (pictured), a cancer biologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who instigated the petition last month, top NIH officials make it clear that they are not budging on their two-strikes-and-you’re-out policy for grant submissions.
Since the new policy was put in place in January, 2009, it “certainly has achieved the intended goals,” write Sally Rockey, the agency’s chief of extramural research, and Larry Tabak, its principal deputy director. “The number of applications funded [on first submission] is increasing and there is no queue piling up at the [resubmission] level,” they write.
They add that while “there is little doubt that some great science is not being funded” because a lower proportion of grants overall are being funded in tight budget times, “restoring [second resubmissions] will not change that picture and will increase the time and effort required for writing additional resubmissions.”
Benezra, who drafted the petition in a burst of inspiration while watching the Egyptian revolution unfold on CNN, said today: “I am simply not persuaded.”
Benezra says that in light of current budget constraints, when as few as one in 20 grant applications are successful and the quality of a 20th percentile application cannot be distinguished from a 5th percentile application, “removing the [second resubmission] has the effect of eliminating outstanding grants that would otherwise be funded in time. In effect, queuing is the only fair way to go when dollars are so scarce.”
Benezra initially emailed the petition to 39 colleagues. By the time he submitted it to NIH 11 days later, on February 20, he had 2,335 signatures. Nearly 400 more researchers have since contacted him, asking to sign on.
Benezra said today that he is going to ask for reaction to the NIH response from each of the petitioners and ponder his next move once he has digested their feedback.
He is not without opponents. Comradde PhysioProffe, a blogger who says he is a longtime NIH grantee at a major, private US medical school, was quick to back up the NIH response. In this blog today, he calls Benezra’s argument that great science is going unfunded because of the policy “arithmetically incoherent.”
“The bottom line,” he adds, “is that there are only so many competing awards that can be funded, due to budget constraints.” In the zero-sum game that is NIH extramural grant funding, he notes, reinstituting second resubmissions would necessarily mean rejecting an equivalent number of new submissions, or first resubmissions.
Comradde PhysioProffe put it even more bluntly in this earlier post on the same issue: “These researchers would be much better advised to devote their energies to lobbying Congress to support the NIH budget, not tilting at irrelevant peer review windmills.”