This week, the scientific review committee of a state-funded initiative for cancer research resigned over concerns about peer review. The move follows a series of troubles at the Austin-based Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) that began earlier this year, when CPRIT leaders approved a US$18-million grant that did not go through peer review and awards of peer-reviewed grants were delayed. CPRIT’s chief scientific officer, Nobel laureate Alfred Gilman, announced his resignation in protest in May, and CPRIT executives vowed to implement changes ensuring the integrity of its grant procedures (see ‘Grant review opens up Texas-sized rift’).
This week, amid continuing concerns over integrity, members of the CPRIT scientific review council sent in letters of resignation (see the Houston Chronicle‘s ‘Top scientific reviewers defect’).
The first to announce his resignation was the chair, biologist and Nobel laureate Phil Sharp. He spoke with Nature from his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge about his decision to resign from CPRIT.
Did you know everyone else would follow when you sent in your resignation letter on Monday?
There was no agreement. We had discussed the change in leadership when Al had submitted his resignation and decided that everyone would act on their own behalf and not collectively.
When did you know that you would resign?
I was pretty confident during in the summer, and made it clear to colleagues and wrote the letter to CPRIT after the 5 October session. That was when we made our recommendations for [another series of grant] proposals. The council clearly felt highly committed to reviewing those proposals and so there was no intention to leave the investigators in Texas with a set of applications they had prepared and have no review system in place.
I very much hope that Texas will continue the CPRIT effort. I think the state needs CPRIT. The resignation is not to discourage that. The purpose is that I intensely believe that peer review is important for funding science at the state level and the federal level. If you don’t have that, then, other things come into the picture and science will ultimately be less effective.
Have you resigned from other boards for similar reasons?
In the midst of an appointment like this? No.
Are you leaving to show solidarity with Gilman?
I’m leaving to make the statement I just made about peer review.
Do you think CPRIT can be salvaged?
They need to appoint someone with a strong independent voice and visibility. And to assemble a strong peer-review system with no conflict of interest and then use it. That’s what I hope they do.
What lessons should other grant-making agencies take from CPRIT?
I hope they take the message that there are a lot of people who believe peer review is a very important aspect of funding the best science and getting the best science done. They should respect the process they put in place. Almost every state is investing more and more money in supporting research. They are doing this for a very good reason: that research creates a local economy and integrating peer review into that grant-making funding of science is a very important aspect of getting the best science.
Any final thoughts?
I’m most concerned in all of this that the citizens of Texas do not take this as discouragement for the support of research. This is about how CPRIT functions, not the value of CPRIT. CPRIT is very valuable for the state of Texas.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post referred to Sharp’s position as chair of the scientific review committee rather than the scientific review council. That has been corrected.
UPDATE2: Here is a summary from KUT news with links to many of the resignation letters, many of them excoriating CPRIT.