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NIH responds to critics

A News story in the 12 June issue of Nature (453, 823; 2008) by Meredith Wadman:

Responding to hundreds of critical comments, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has reversed several controversial proposals made in February as part of a year-long effort to overhaul the agency’s peer-review system (see Nature 451, 1035; 2008).

As part of an initiative called Enhancing Peer Review, announced in a finalized form on 6 June, the agency will spend at least $200 million annually over the next five years to foster groundbreaking, investigator-initiated research. Of that, at least $250 million will go to a new beast: a Transformative R01 Award, a reach-for-the-skies version of the NIH’s basic grant. The remaining $750 million will go to existing awards that reward risk and innovation: the Eureka, New Innovator and Pioneer awards.

The changes “are concrete solutions that will maximize flexibility, remove any unnecessary burden, stimulate new innovation and promote transformative research”, says NIH director Elias Zerhouni.

They include rewards for long-serving reviewers; a streamlined, 12-page R01 grant application, down from 25; and a seven-point, integer scoring scale for grant applications, which will be assessed across five criteria: impact, investigators, innovation, feasibility and environment. Current applications are graded on a 41 point scale, from 1.0 to 5.0, raising complaints that they claim a degree of accuracy that can’t be scientifically defended.

Among the controversial proposals shelved by the agency was a recommendation that all applications, even those on a second or third submission, would be treated as new, without reviewer access to prior reviews.

Gone, too, is the category “not recommended for resubmission”, which had been suggested for dismal applications. Scientists felt that branding projects with “a clear, checkbox-driven stigma is bad, that it could have unintended consequences”, Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, told the advisory committee.

Berg and Lawrence Tabak, director of the NIH’s dental institute, head the group that developed the recommendations and are charged with implementing them over the next 18 months.

The agency also jettisoned a “minimum effort requirement” that would have required principal investigators to commit at least 20% of their time to any single NIH grant — an item of particular concern for ‘grandee grantees’ (see Nature 452, 258–259; 2008). Instead, grantees will need to indicate if they will have more than $1 million in cumulative NIH funding.

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    Jonathan said:

    I find it very interesting (read: highly unsurprising) that the recommendations that were cut were mainly the ones that would have benefitted ealry career scientists. The short-sightedness of senior researchers is staggering; and I cannot and will not ever suggest to an undergrad now that they should consider doing a PhD. Talk about eating your young!

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    Lincoln said:

    Help needed to fight research misconduct

    I worked in one of the most prestigious institutes in Boston and the world. In the work, I could not be able to recapitulate and develop a major story in the polycystic kidney disease field. Later I found out that some of the important data that were published and used by the laboratory to apply for NIH grants were falsified and fabricated. Astoundingly, my findings also indicated that several top laboratories in the field are probably involving in fabrication and/or falsification of scientific data. I presented the evidences and made complaints to the principle investigator of the laboratory and later the officials in the institute. However, I was retaliated against for my whistle blowing and was asked to leave my position. I have made research misconduct allegation and retaliation allegation in Office of Research Integrity in US Department of Health and Human Services. Unfortunately, ORI only asked the institute set up self-investigation panels for both issues. After my complaining, the institute egregiously engaged in the retaliation and threatening, attempting to intimidate me. After an extremely unfair investigation, the institute terminated my position before the investigation to research misconduct actually started, releasing a clear signal to the people of research misconduct that the institute is helping them cover up their wrongdoings. If the research misconduct is covered up, millions dollars of taxpayers’ money could be in danger of being wasted, the public health could be in danger of unprotected, and the truth might be buried by the lies. Therefore, I am seeking for urgent assistance from anyone who will be able to give me a hand on this matter. Your kind assistance and/or information will be highly appreciated by all honest and hard-working scientists. If you are interested in knowing the specific story, please contact me at lincbacon@gmail.com.

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